Don't Panic November 20 2002

Why does it matter if Osama bin Laden is still alive?

Last week, the de facto leader of the most heinous group in the world released a frightening new recording. The tape demonstrated to his followers that, despite fierce attacks and rumors of his demise, he is still a force to be reckoned with.

But enough about Justin Timberlake. The question we're here to discuss is whether and why Osama bin Laden's continued and, frankly, quite unfortunate lack of deadness is really a matter of concern. In a word: Hell, yeah. (Wait, that's two words.)

The only thing a dead Bin Laden can do is perhaps inspire his fellow al Qaeda members as they carry out their terrible deeds. Alive, Bin Laden not only can inspire, he can order, lead and finance terrorism. The White House knows this. Immediately after the 9-11 attacks, and until the battles that took place around Bin Laden's stronghold in the Tora Bora mountains, Bin Laden's capture or death was our top concern. It was only when it became clear that catching him was gonna be a lot harder than we thought that the White House and the Pentagon started downplaying his importance.

Bin Laden's most recent tape comes right in the middle of one of the now seemingly regular upswings in terror talk from the government. The last really big upswing came around 9-11 and briefly caused the White House to change its color-coded fear chart to a more threatening color. The big one before that happened around July 4.

You might recall that there was a Bin Laden audiotape a couple of months ago. It didn't contain any references by which to confirm that it was a recent recording, so the American public didn't pay much attention to it. But within a couple of days of that tape's release came al Qaeda's attack on a French freighter off the coast of Yemen (a la al Qaeda's 2000 attack on our warship, the U.S.S. Cole). And within 10 days of the tape's release came the attacks on the Bali resort in Indonesia.

So the government's — and subsequently my — big fear now is that Bin Laden's new tape is a prelude to more attacks. In the past few days, the FBI has leaked information about vague threats to hospitals in three or four large American cities. The FBI also mentioned the possibility of a "spectacular" attack involving aviation, petroleum or nuclear facilities. In addition, there's supposedly been a lot of "terrorist chatter" intercepted in the past week or so.

Along with "vigilant," "terrorist chatter" is one of those post 9-11 vocabulary words that everyone in the media uses, but for which nobody really knows the definition. When the government says that "terrorist chatter" is increasing, I imagine government surveillance teams sitting in white vans with headphones on intercepting conversations between Arab men saying stuff like, "The brown camel walks backward at midnight," or, "Can you pick up some pita on the way home?"

There's already evidence that Bin Laden's tape and all the "terrorist chatter" spell danger. Just two days after the tape came out, two U.S. bases in southeastern Afghanistan (near where we think Bin Laden might be hiding) came under the heaviest attack in months on U.S. troops stationed there. Reuters reports that former Taliban officials are saying Bin Laden is responsible for ordering those attacks.

In retaliation, we're invading Iraq.


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