Osama, Where Art
December 25, 2003
dont want to spoil the high-alert holiday spirit, but no,
Virginia, I dont believe in Santa Claus, and Im having my
doubts about Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the terrorist threat.
Im writing before
Christmas Day, and I could be proved horribly wrong by the time you read
this. One more spectacular crime, on the order of 9/11, would make me eat
my words. I only say Im having my doubts.
Government officials are urging
us to carry on fearlessly with our normal lives, or, thats right,
the terrorists will have won. Isnt this like saying
that if you lock your doors and install an alarm system, the burglars have
already won? Here weve been warned about the al-Qaeda network
for two years, and now were to act as if we dont believe in
it? What are all these multicolored alerts for, then? Holiday decorations?
Granted, 9/11 far and
away the most spectacular terrorist act of all time is a tough act
to follow, even for determined fanatics. We certainly expected to hear
more from them by now. We panicked at anthrax poisonings and power
failures; we made duct tape the hottest product this side of the personal
computer. Article after article has described the long global tentacles of
al-Qaeda; news shows have shown the countless vulnerable points where
terrorists might strike next unguarded seaports and the like.
Weve argued about whether airline pilots should be armed, and
weve submitted to innumerable inconveniences and indignities in
the name of security. Weve debated whether Islam is inherently
disposed to violence. The Federal Government has passed new laws and
assumed new powers. And weve even waged a War on Terrorism.
But its starting to look as
if al-Qaeda is running short of ideas or resources, or both. A single suicide
bomber in, say, the Lincoln Tunnel could empty Manhattan in a flash,
setting off an economic collapse. But despite many helpful suggestions of
this sort, we havent seen much. Al-Qaeda appears to be less
imaginative than the U.S. Government and the American media.
When the War on Terrorism began, President Bush warned us that
it would go on for years, and even at that we might never know when
wed won. But we would win, for sure. And every military victory in
Afghanistan and Iraq was celebrated as if we were sure it brought us
closer to victory over terrorism. Lately weve been whooping it up
for the capture of Saddam Hussein, though there is no proof at all that he
had anything to do with 9/11.
Santayana defined fanaticism as
redoubling your efforts when youve forgotten your aim.
Thats a pretty good description of a War on Terrorism that turns
into a vain search for Saddam Husseins weapons of mass
destruction, though the weapons of 9/11 were a few crude blades that
eluded airport searches.
Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden
whose exact role, if any, in 9/11 remains mysterious has
vanished from the news magazines where his face used to appear weekly.
Nobody (at least, no Westerner) knows if he is even alive, or if he has
converted to Buddhism. We are assured that our intelligence services are
hot on the trail of al-Qaeda, hence the latest alerts, but at some point we
are entitled to be skeptical. Maybe the war has already been won, or maybe
it has just fizzled out.
At any rate, Saddam has
somehow replaced Osama as the archvillain, if only because he was more
available. Lots of Americans dont know the difference, or think
they are more or less the same wicked Arab. Saddams beard, at the
time they got the drop on him, may have added to the confusion. We
got him! Him? Whom?
President Clinton, not Bush, is
the one who nearly got Osama, back when Monica Lewinsky was the weekly
cover girl and a timely distraction was called for. Bush, the fierce war
leader, has never come as close as the peacenik president who made love,
But if we may never know when
weve won the War on Terror, we may also never know when to be
skeptical about the whole thing. In time we may suspect that Osama bin
Laden has gone the way of Judge Crater and Jimmy Hoffa, never to be heard
from again, for darkly inscrutable reasons. Not that we should be
prematurely skeptical of our own government, but we should be ready for
anything, even the realization that weve been had.