Whither Osama?

A lot of thoughtful, or perhaps only mostly thoughtful, people turn the discussion of the latest Osama bin Laden tape into an indictment of the impotence of the American military or allude to a possible conspiracy involving either the capture of bin Laden or allowing bin Laden to remain free to serve as a boogie man to justify the overreach of a warmongering neoconservative president. Why can’t the greatest military on the planet find one man?

I have two words to rebut any conspiracy theory: Eric Robert Rudolph.

For those of you who don’t remember, Eric Robert Rudolph is the fellow who bombed the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Law enforcement identified Eric Robert Rudolph as a suspect in an Alabama abortion clinic bombing on February 14, 1998. Rudolph went on the run and hid out on the fringes of a mountain town in North Carolina and was finally arrested on May 31, 2003.

Let’s dwell on that for a moment: From the time Rudolph was named as a suspect and the search began in earnest, 5 years, 3 months, and 17 days passed. The FBI was conducting its manhunts through the woods and mountains of North Carolina and the southeast, using local guides and local law enforcement when possible, to comb and canvas the area with vigor. An area within the boundaries of the United States, peopled with Americans.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, at which point Osama bin Laden beat his retreat to Pakistan or wherever. Between then and now, 4 years and 3 months have elapsed, and the American military has not found him. For those paying any attention and trying to gain any perspective, bin Laden is rumored to be hiding on Pakistani soil. That is, he is not on ground controlled by American soldiers; indeed, the remote region where he’s supposed to be hiding (or have hidden until his death) is populated with people who don’t like Americans and wouldn’t help if they could (some, though, would say the same about Murphy, North Carolina, but it’s futile to try to talk with someone likes equate Christian fundamentalists with tribal Muslims in Pakistan).

The American military, and American law enforcement, are not omnipotent, no matter how loud the civil libertarians shriek about any advance in data-gathering or surveillance technology. Unfortunately, the American psyche believes them to be so. I think of it as the Star Trek effect: When we’re confronted with fictional representations (like 24 or Tom Clancy) of the military’s climactic successes, we tend to adjust our expectations to meet them. (I call it the Star Trek effect because science fiction has sometimes lulled us into not remembering how dangerous space flight really is currently.) If the military cannot pull bin Laden out of a cave after 42 minutes of prime time television, it’s failing….or it’s a cliffhanger leading to a suspenseful twist about the mole in the agency at the highest levels who is thwarting the effort or is misleading the American people.

We’re not so far from the world where Nazi fugitives hid for decades at the edges of the civilized world, and we’re not far at all from a world where a lone bomber in America can hide in the woods overlooking town for half a decade before a lucky break lands him in jail. Wherever Osama bin Laden is, if he’s alive, he’s still on the run, and if the American military and world law enforcement remains vigilant, we’ll catch him eating out of a Save-a-Lot dumpster sooner or later.

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