Finding Osama is Not the End

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A foreign terrorist group launches an attack on American soil, killing civilians. The U.S. armed forces, using the most advanced technology in the world, invade a foreign country in pursuit of the group's leader. Thousands of American troops hunt for him in deserts and high, arid mountains.

But we never did catch Pancho Villa. A year after the Mexican revolutionary torched Columbus, N.M., in 1916, General "Black Jack" Pershing's doughboys were on their way to fight the Germans in France. Villa lived until 1923.

Big-time criminals have a habit of slipping the net. Carlos the Jackal, who masterminded many of the terrorist outrages of the 1970s and '80s, wasn't collared until 1994, when French agents snatched him in Sudan, where he was recovering from an operation — reportedly to reverse a vasectomy. Osama bin Laden will not necessarily remain on the lam that long. Indeed, he may already be dead, buried in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. But at a time when the war against terrorism is in a messy, inconclusive phase — in the military operations, more Americans have died in 2002 than in all of 2001 — the fact that bin Laden is unaccounted for inevitably casts doubt on the extent to which the war's objectives have been met.

No prizes for guessing why that may be so. As White House officials concede, President George W. Bush has always personalized this conflict. Bin Laden was the "evil one." He was "wanted dead or alive." In much the same way, Bush's father demonized Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. "We're dealing with Hitler revisited," said the elder Bush in 1990. From Sept. 11 on, Administration officials wanted to avoid such language, because they knew that it would allow people to measure the campaign's success solely by whether or not bin Laden was killed or captured. "I can remember a meeting in which we talked about how we didn't want to do 'the Saddam thing,'" says a senior White House official. "But it was unavoidable. It's just the nature of the beast."

Perhaps making bin Laden Public Enemy No. 1 was inevitable. He is the leader of a worldwide terrorist network, and in frequent video appearances since Sept. 11, he has gloated over the deaths of thousands. However, Bush's rhetoric has never consisted solely of attacks on bin Laden. In his speech to Congress on Sept. 20, the President said, "Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there ... Americans should not expect one battle but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen." Of late, Administration officials have been keen to shift the focus away from personalities. "We don't want the perception that [bin Laden] is what the war is all about," said a senior White House official last week. To the extent that the President did focus on bin Laden, he was not alone. The media did too. TIME has twice run covers painting bin Laden as the "target" of the war against terrorism. This pattern is hardly new. During the Kosovo war, the American media consistently portrayed Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic as the embodiment of evil.

Such language may be justified by the nature of the adversary it describes. And it is certainly a useful way to stiffen the sinews of a nation that goes to war unwillingly. But it is dangerous, all the same. Terrorism did not start with bin Laden, and we should not allow ourselves to think that it will end with his death. A genuine war against terror would recognize that it is not practiced or supported only by those of the Islamic faith or whose homes are in the Middle East. In the 1990s, for example, money was raised in the U.S. for terrorist groups (sorry, "freedom fighters") in Ireland. The war against terrorism should be a multifaceted attempt to reduce — eradication is too much to hope for — the use of indiscriminate violence against civilians for political ends. If we are serious, that war will take place on many fronts — military, financial, cultural and intellectual — and it will be waged for many years.

Administration officials know all this. Some of them have compared their present concerns to those felt in the Cold War, a struggle won as much by capitalism and the power of ideas as by force of arms. (The analogy I prefer is the long campaign to eradicate the Atlantic slave trade in the 19th century.) So the Administration deserves credit, not criticism, for reiterating since Christmas that bin Laden's body is not the sole test of whether the war has been won.

Villa, who had many enemies (among them, the countless men he cuckolded), was eventually assassinated in a Mexican town when he could no longer afford a private army. Perhaps bin Laden's end will be similarly prosaic. But whatever his fate, the war against terrorism should not die with him. — With reporting by James Carney/Washington