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On Point

Osama bin Laden's Unintended Legacy

by Austin Bay
Sep 12, 2002

Al Jazeera, the Arabic CNN, referred to Osama bin Laden in the past tense.

A slip of a lieutenant's tongue reveals his death. Disinformation? I doubt it. The interview was an Al-Qaeda 9-11 boast session. Two bin Laden pals bragged, not the terror chief. If he were alive, he'd have been on camera, chortling.

So I'm ripping the "Wanted" poster off the wall. Don't call the gravediggers. Disposing of Osama bin Laden's earthly remains is a job for starving sharks, if remains exist. Most likely he's dust among bomb fragments.

With bin Laden's death the Hollywood manhunt phase of the anti-terror war ends. Good. Getting Osama was an early chase scene, not the plot nor denouement. The war continues. The long task of decimating global terrorism proceeds, for the echoes of bin Laden's evil persist as angry shouts throughout the world. The terror network Al Qaeda's leadership clique created infests four-dozen countries. The resentments, jealousies, yearnings and hatreds that bred bin Laden, the nefarious passions that he inflamed and used, will continue to plague this generation. Likewise, the thousands of Americans killed on bin Laden's day of homicidal infamy will not be forgotten.

Mass murderer, religious zealot, caliph-in-waiting, cunning propagandist, gambling strategist, nerdy rich kid, warrior dilettante, terrorist contractor, self-deluded fool: in hodge podge fashion, the man's career. Too much for an average tombstone. TV talk shows and the Internet will serve as interactive mausoleums for the debate on what it meant, trying to get the arc and aim of the man. The exaggerated, fabricated and haunting details of his life and death will be examined for centuries.

The United States will continue to fight the myth bin Laden manufactured and attempted to live -- the myth of the global Islamic revolutionary in the vanguard of holy war against the decadent West.

That's the myth. What deadly hokum, a vicious slapstick of selective history, bad theology, and autocratic arrogance empowered by hate and a multimillion-dollar inheritance.

I know, his face achieved at least momentary iconic status on that long, pitiful drag known as "the Arab and Islamic street." The global village saw it every day -- bin Laden as a mythic rock star of violence and revolt against that ill-defined planetary monster known as "Western hegemony." A friend of mine, reporting from Peshawar, hooked one of those posters. On the front is Osama, with a background of fiery jet airplanes, the Dome of the Rock and Afghan warriors. On the back is an ad for Super Crisp Peanuts, a Pakistani snack food.

To call it the clash of the 10th century and the 21st ignores the fact bin Laden, too, was a modern who believed the future lies in the past, or at least his highly edited and Bowdlerized version of the last thousand years.

I doubt bin Laden as "the warrior dilettante" will get much ink. It doesn't deserve much. I've seen the videotape at least 40 times, the gawky man in camouflage handling his Kalashnikov not as weapon, but as a stage prop. He's the rich kid play-acting war, the symbol and not the substance of the soldier.

Credit bin Laden with a feel for grand strategy. He believed an anti-American brand of Islamic theology spread by committed zealots would, over time, create a global army. His "base," his Al Qaeda, would be the neural nexus of this ineradicable guerrilla force, and his influence would extend through theological, ideological, political and financial means.

Competent strategists, however, know their enemy. Enter the self-deluded fool accompanied by violent yes-men. Bin Laden utterly failed to understand America. He had no concept of the deep, fundamental sources of American strength. Bin Laden stated he intended to destroy "the myth of American might." Bin Laden thought smashing the icons of American power (like the Pentagon) would diminish that power. Instead, he motivated the real source of American potency, it's free people and their creative energy.

His allies are the biggest losers. The noxious Taliban, who endorsed his delusions, paid the price. Others, such as Saddam Hussein, are future object lessons. Radical Islamism won't disappear, but its political appeal is tattered, setting the stage for a 21st century Islamic Reformation.

That isn't the legacy Osama bin Laden intended to leave.

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