Ever since the Pentagon blew the battle at Tora Bora last year and apparently allowed Osama bin Laden to slip the noose, the administration has been busy playing down his importance. "We've tried hard not to personalize it," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said of bin Laden and his Taliban sidekick, Mohammad Omar. "This is a lot more than bin Laden and Omar," she said.
Yes, it's about failure.
The decision to de-emphasize the hunt for the two, especially bin Laden, seems "linked" -- that all-purpose Washington word -- to the fact that the United States has been unable to find him, either "dead or alive," in George Bush's unforgettable phrase. Specifically, it seems that bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora, where, U.S. intelligence now believes, he was present. It was a spectacular fiasco.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld set the administration's tone when he implied it didn't matter all that much if bin Laden was dead or alive since, in either case, his days as a master terrorist were surely over. "Wherever he is, if he is, you can be certain he is having one dickens of a time operating his apparatus," Rumsfeld said.
The commander of U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan, Army Lt. Gen. Dan McNeil, struck a similar note. He said the really important target was al Qaeda itself -- not its leader. "We don't have to find him, because we're going to shut down his terrorist apparatus," he said.
Now an audiotape purportedly from bin Laden has surfaced in the usual outlet for such things, the Arab satellite channel, al-Jazeera. Since the voice mentions such recent events as the bombing in Bali and the murder of a U.S. diplomat in Jordan, the tape has to have been made fairly recently. And since the Bush administration cannot show that bin Laden is dead, he will continue to live -- whether in fact, tape or myth -- in the imagination and yearnings of his followers, larger than life because he cannot be proven dead.
The obvious attempt to play down bin Laden's importance has a whistling-past-the-graveyard quality to it. In the first place, the existence of the new tape is a form of nose-thumbing. It shows the world -- particularly the Islamic world -- that the United States is not as all powerful as some people might suppose. It may be able to pound Afghanistan into rubble and possibly do the same to Iraq, but it is far weaker when facing terrorism -- the ol' asymmetrical warfare business. This is a lesson Israel learns on almost a daily basis.
Second, there was no al Qaeda before bin Laden, and while it might continue to exist without him, it would certainly be far less formidable. He bankrolled the organization with his personal fortune, but more important, he is a rare charismatic leader. There is no point in calling him names -- evil, for instance -- when no matter what we may think of him (and evil he surely is) he is a hero in parts of the world. For many reasons, he has become the personification of extreme Islam's war against the West, modernity and -- a rational person would suggest -- the welfare of its own people.
Last, I have to go back to Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman. She and her bosses may now choose not to "personalize" the search for bin Laden, but I -- and countless others -- feel differently. The man is a mass murderer who took more than 3,000 lives on Sept. 11 alone. He is responsible for other terrorist attacks as well, including the bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen.
Those of us who were in New York when the twin towers of the World Trade Center were hit, who were downtown when the buildings collapsed, can never forget that day. The sound of buildings snapping and then collapsing, people plummeting to their deaths or tumbling into an inferno of jet fuel, firefighters and cops rushing up stairs that would soon be pulverized, widows, orphans, a gash in the city that endures -- all this makes Sept. 11 very personal indeed. To this day, every firetruck rushing by -- the names of the dead embossed on the sides -- is a reminder of what happened, a blur of a memorial.
Osama bin Laden laughed at all this, his cackle caught on an earlier videotape. Now, in effect, he laughs some more. The murder of innocents in Bali, in Jordan, in Tunisia, in that Moscow theater -- the terrorism he applauds, if not supports, and which was mentioned on that tape, makes it imperative that he be captured or killed, and that we know for sure. That would be good policy -- and satisfying as hell.