AL QAEDA HAS been threatening, and many people have expected, another terrorist attack against the United States before Tuesday's elections. Others have speculated that the Bush administration would surprise the world with the arrest of Osama bin Laden. Instead, what surfaced Friday was an 18-minute videotape from the al Qaeda leader in which he sought to lecture Americans on the eve of their vote. In doing so, he managed to establish that he is still alive, in relatively good health and in command of an organization, three points that some experts had come to doubt -- and that implicitly indict the administration's efforts to neutralize him. A lethal attack could still be forthcoming. Yet it was not a picture of great strength that Osama bin Laden offered Friday -- nor one that ought to divide Americans.
Start with his defensiveness: The "emir" who once issued medieval declarations of war against "Jews and crusaders" and who bankrolled the Taliban's despotism in Afghanistan now feels obliged to protest that he does not "hate freedom." To justify his murder of thousands of Americans on Sept. 11, 2001 -- a crime for which he now openly takes responsibility -- he cites not his erstwhile platform for Islamic dictatorship in the Middle East but -- improbably -- Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Something is clearly troubling Osama bin Laden: Could it be the millions of Afghans who eagerly turned out to vote in the country's first democratic elections this month and who overwhelmingly supported the moderate, pro-Western Hamid Karzai for president? Or the growing support for democratic government in Iraq, especially from senior members of the Islamic clergy? Al Qaeda suddenly finds itself on the wrong side of a swelling debate about freedom in the Middle East -- one triggered both by Osama bin Laden's bloody extremism and the powerful U.S. response to it.
His appeal to Americans was remarkably weak: Leave Afghanistan and the Middle East to us, he said, and we will spare you as we have Sweden. Few would have accepted this proposal even before Sept. 11; three years later, it is so preposterous that it merely evinces the enemy's desperation. The tirade against President Bush and his family was even clunkier. Maybe it was meant to shift voters away from the president on Tuesday; more likely it will do the opposite.
Both Mr. Bush and John F. Kerry were quick to reject Osama bin Laden's words and to promise unrelenting war against him. After a brief pause, each then sought to turn the moment against the other. With hours left in their tight race, this was inevitable, and there is no reason why Mr. Kerry should not reiterate his oft-stated criticisms of the administration's campaign against al Qaeda, nor Mr. Bush his about Mr. Kerry's aptitude for fighting terrorism. What ought to remain clear, however, is the common and uncompromising rejection of Osama bin Laden and his suggestion of appeasement. The candidates can do that today and tomorrow; on Tuesday, it will be time for Americans to demonstrate, by their attendance at the polls, which side in this war loves freedom.