Back in 2006 I published this column concerning Osama bin Laden:
Osama bin Laden Is Our Sci-Fi Nightmare
[Mr. Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and attorney, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column Attorney at Large.]
The future is now. We live in a Sci-Fi world: supersonic flight and space travel; cloning and organ transplants; computers and artificial intelligence; weapons of mass destruction and stealth bombers. The best evidence of our having entered the realms of fantasy and science fiction is Osama bin Laden.
Our Western world imagined Osama bin Laden long before he was born. He is Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. He is Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. He would like to become Marvel Comic’s Ming the Merciless.
Professor Moriarty is described by his chief antagonist, Sherlock Holmes, as “the Napoleon of Crime.” Moriarty lurks in the shadows, masterminding murder and mayhem, and even influencing world affairs. In The Final Solution the two opponents finally meet face to face atop Switzerland’s 200-foot Reisenbach Falls, apparently falling together to their deaths. The U.S. armed forces hoped for such a final solution for Osama among the craggy peaks of Afghanistan, but so far our modern-day Napoleon of Crime has apparently not obliged.
Fu Manchu prefigures Osama. A villain out of the mysterious East --- albeit Far, not Middle, East --- he is described in The Insidious Fu Manchu as “a person, tall, lean and feline, high shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present…. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.” I don’t know about Shakespeare’s brow or the cat-green eyes, but otherwise, couldn’t this fit our image of bin Laden?
Last is Ming. Flash Gordon’s nemesis is our worst nightmare… Osama bin Laden triumphant, the leader of a fundamentalist-Islamic empire arrayed in undying enmity against our “decadent” West. Ming’s empire, “Mingo,” intent upon enslaving the galaxy, is armed with rocket ships, robots and death rays. Ming, whose name sounds Asian, resembles Fu Manchu. In the 1980 movie “Flash Gordon,” Max Von Sydow (of all people) captures the Asian-super-villain look perfectly: shaved head, angular jet-black eyebrows and goatee, slanting eyes that stare right through you.
Where the heck is Osama bin Laden and what exactly is al-Qaeda? And the biggest question of them all: With all our computers, and supersonic aircraft, and satellites and even a space station, plus our nukes and other assorted weapons of mass destruction… with all our sci-fi gadgets, why can’t America catch and kill this guy?
Perhaps he’s no longer human.
Sure, laugh at me if you must. But I say that in a world where Google can give me 25,700,000 hits on “Osama bin Laden” in .07 seconds (try it yourself); where airliners travel at 600 miles per hour, seven miles high, in air temperatures of 50 to 60 degrees below zero to deliver me from Philly to London in some six hours; and where a futuristic stealth bomber can deliver a nuclear device capable of killing millions in a millisecond and never even be detected by the victims’ radar… in a world like this, our worst recurring nightmares can become reality.
If you can’t buy that hypothesis, then try this one on for size: If Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda didn’t exist, someone would have invented them. This theory has plenty of precedents. In the hard-coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania in the 1870s, every murder and act of arson was blamed on the “Molly Maguires,” an alleged secret society of Irish terrorists. Throughout much of the 20th century organized crime was equated to the “Mafia.” Yet, as Italian writer Luigi Barzini once said, “Almost everything is known about the Mafia except whether or not it really exists.” During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Anarchists assassinated half a dozen western leaders including our own President McKinley. Yet Anarchism is an idea that eschews formal organization. We seem to need labels like these to make some sense of our violent world.
The plot foiled by the Brits last week is a 21st century case on point. The plan was to blow up airliners. The method was seriously sci-fi. Bombs were to be assembled from harmless-looking carry-on items ignited by digital cameras. The culprits are British citizens. None carried an al Qaeda membership card when captured.
In our sci-fi world, Osama bin Laden no longer needs to be alive at all. Digital technology can produce tapes of the legendary terrorist leader talking to his admirers. The messages can be beamed around the globe at the speed of light. Like Moriarty, Fu Manchu, and Ming the Merciless, an imaginary bin Laden can be as effective an enemy of the West as any flesh-and-blood human being… maybe more so. Perhaps he really still exists, but he no longer needs to.
--- See "Attorney at Large"
Four years later, I wonder if we are not witnessing the emergence of an equally insidious successor to bin Laden in either Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, a 28-year-old Saudi national, who is on Saudi Arabia’s most-wanted list --- the Washington Post alleges, “Asiri, 28, who is based in Yemen, is... believed to have built the underwear bomb that a Nigerian man trained in Yemen attempted to detonate last Christmas Day on a commercial aircraft approaching Detroit." --- or Anwar al-Awlaki, whom President Obama purportedly placed on a CIA hit list recently. Also believed to be hiding in Yemen, al-Awlaki is said to be an Internet-savvy jihadist using the tactic of Leaderless Resistance to inspire acts of terror... possibly including last year's Fort Hood massacre.