Osama lives

Posted: Nov 26, 2002 12:00 AM
Some weeks ago, President Bush was asked if he knew whether Osama bin Laden was dead. Mr. Bush answered that if Osama was dead, so much for that problem, if he was not, the hiatus would not be for very long.

Mr. Bush then moved on to speak of other aspects of the al-Qaida war than whether its architect was still alive. There is the public impression that he is obsessive on the question of whether bin Laden is alive, but the records do not substantiate this. He has mentioned bin Laden's name only a couple of times in the days since 9/11. The inclination back then was to think of Osama as a kind of anthropomorphic executive of the evil that terrorism had struck us with.

But it wasn't long before we learned that Osamaism was sharply different from Hitlerism, which would indeed die with a single decapitation. Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson had one egregious moment at the great Nuremberg trial when he suggested that defendant Hermann Goering was planning, if he escaped the gallows, to return to public life to revive Hitlerism. Everybody squirmed, including the other defendants. They knew that Hitlerism was dead, felled by a suicide's bullet in the Berlin bunker.

In the immediate aftermath of the Twin Towers assault, a few observers noted that any sense that the war against the terrorists would be consummated with the capture and death of Osama bin Laden was misleading. Some of us expressed the hope that Osama would not be caught and disposed of, precisely because too many might then be persuaded that the threat he represented, brought on by 9/11, would then have passed.

Everybody knows that killing Osama would be no more effective in what we are up against now than killing the original Canadian carrier in the early '80s would have been against the problem of AIDS in the United States.

But this doesn't add up to an assumption that it is unimportant that Osama is alive. It has been established that indeed he is alive, or at least that he was alive only a couple of weeks ago, when he voiced views and cited data that clearly established that he was. If someone discusses the Dow Jones of yesterday, we know that he was alive to do so.

Osama alive means an enormous invigoration of the myth of Osama, as the great leader of a great movement. Not quite the equivalent of Christ arising from the dead, but hugely advancing the mythogenic figure. Do you see what is proved? the cultists are saying in the Wahhabist circles of the true believers. They cannot destroy him. He is immune to mere Western movements intended to do so. He has survived 100 (allow for the exaggerations) U.S. Army divisions, bombings and artillery and helicopters and intelligence agents. He lives!

Those who were thrilled, as many of us were, reading about Robin Hood decades ago, understand the impulses. Robin Hood was hunted down by what seemed the entire force of the British establishment, but hiding in that forest, riding into that bower, shooting his arrows at that royal pursuer, and swinging from that tree branch to the safety of another, he eluded the British. And the myth was reinforced.

Those of us who did not pause to examine the meaning of Robin Hood (prey on those who had property for the purpose of giving it to others, keeping as much as one wanted for Robin and his Merry Men) thought it terribly exciting that he eluded formalistic British justice.

There are tens of thousands of enthusiasts, unfortunately throughout the world, who are cheering Osama bin Laden's reappearance on audiotape. He renews his own legend. Formal Muslim procedures have been cited to the effect that if one is truly dead, the fact of death is not to be concealed. Osama appears to have lived by that stricture. If he had been killed, his death would have been acknowledged by his own supporters.

He wasn't killed. Could it be that this is so because he is -- a creature of God? Doing God's work?

The continuing challenge of the West is to mobilize respectable Muslim preachments and to disavow Osama's work, never mind whether he is physically alive. Adolf Eichmann eluded justice by fleeing to Argentina and attempting to hide himself. Finally, the Israelis caught up with him and brought him home to the hangman. Nobody feared that for so long as Eichmann lived, the justification of the Holocaust lived with him. Osama bin Laden needs to be pursued precisely because any myth to the effect that he is immortal needs to be destroyed. Meanwhile, his movement also needs to be coped with and destroyed. That will take a lot longer than however many more months or years go by during which the begetter of al-Qaida continues to live.