How to handle Bin Laden

Posted: Nov 23, 2001 12:00 AM
NEW YORK -- Roy Jenkins is in town, promoting his superb biography of Winston Churchill. The diners were reminded of Jenkins' eminent career and accomplishments, including a term as home secretary, during which the inititative was taken to abolish capital punishment in Great Britain. At the question period, Barbara Walters asked whether his views on that subject were as adamant as ever, in the age of Osama bin Laden. He replied that what he had most objected to, in 1965, was the "stately procession" of the condemned as, so to speak, they inched their way, seat by seat, cell by cell, toward the gallows.

It will not be that way with Osama, but it warrants reflection to ask: How will it be? There's nothing of the innocent-until-proved-guilty business in the air. The only people who question his complicity in terrorism are Islamic sympathizers who cling to a jurisprudential straw, reminding us of the 11 months required at Nuremberg to prove that Hermann Goering had a hand in promoting aggressive war and killing and torturing an ethnic division of mankind.

But that does not answer the mechanical question, What do we do, after the noose Secretary Rumsfeld refers to, has tightened to the point of isolating Osama in a cave near Kandahar? Imagine the cave at the moment of inquiry encircled by 28,000 soldiers, 238 machine guns, 20 artillery pieces, the opening floodlit; half the world's press, cameras poised, radioing to each other and to the world, with special intensity to those New Yorkers who live in the area of Ground Zero; everyone's eyes trained on the opening from which Osama will have to debouch, in a non-stately approach to the end.

We know that the Defense Department and indeed the State Department do contingency planning. What does the United States do if Nation X (a) drops a nuclear bomb on Detroit, (b) threatens to do so, (c) is caught sending missile weapons to Iraq, (d) calls for a summit conference to discuss the question of nuclear development. Answers: We (a) drop a nuclear bomb on them, (b) threaten to do so, (c) institute a blockade, (d) call for an emergency meeting of the Security Council ... etc.

So how will it be with Osama?

(a) He kills himself, and his body, on a gurney, is slid out on a tarpaulin sled.

(b) He sends out word that he will emerge on the condition that he is tried by a tribunal the composition of which must be approved by the U.N. Security Council, to which body, he insists, his message should be instantly relayed. He will await the reply of the secretary general.

(c) Over the radio, he agrees to surrender provided his imprisoned associates Mohameds Aziz, Busdam, Ceelah and Daes are given safe passage to Yemen. The reply to that proposal comes in from Gen. Tommy Franks by loudspeaker. It is a horse laugh (rendered in Arabic by an aide).

(d) Osama announces on the radio that at exactly 2001 hours he will emerge from the cave, a white flag in his hand, and submit to the conquering forces of evil. President Bush, watching the scene in the Situation Room, earphones over his head, says to Gen. Franks: "We've discussed that contingency. Is the sniper ready?"

(e) An entire day goes by. And then nears the completion of a second day. The encircling troops and press preen with apprehension. There is a contingency plan ("My vote," Gen. Franks is heard to whisper to an aide, "was to go with this one at 0100 hours, not day after tomorrow."): If Osama is not out at 2400 hours, a Stinger weapon will be fired into the cavity of the mountain followed by a rain of smoke bombs. Whoever is in there along with Osama will be dead or asphyxiated.

Of course there are the bloody alternatives, most likely that somehow he will have got away before we situate him in that cave. And already we wonder: Who would take him in? It isn't that, like one of the Nazis, he could easily pass himself off as an itinerant rug dealer and go off to live in Argentina. For one thing, that would collapse his entire afflatus, and this is the one risk he would surely not take. For another, the kind of screening that will go into effect if Osama has escaped Afghanistan will make any country that enfolds him edgier than even North Korea would wish to be.

The Pentagon probably has a contingency plan for that scenario, but it is secret, and not even Barbara Walters can find out what it is.