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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #98, October 2001. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.


Back in happier times, January 2000, George W. Bush said: "When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world, and you knew exactly who they were. It was us vs. them, and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they're there." Thankfully for him, that period of uncertainty is over: he's got a face to put on his wanted poster, that of Osama bin Laden.

Or did, for a while. Now that the military is worried that it might never find the guy, the impulse to personalize the war has been necessarily downsized. Of course, no one really knows ObL's role in the catastrophe - whether he was mastermind or merely the common element in a vast alumni association (assuming he was involved at all). The American instinct is to imagine a single individual at the pinnacle of a neat chain of command; reality is always more complicated than that, and this reality looks like a particularly extreme case of complexity.

At first, it seemed like the planning elite appreciated this, and were proceeding with caution and restraint. But they couldn't resist the urge to let the bombs fly, putting Afghan civilians at great risk (with too many already dead), squandering much of the sympathy the U.S. had earned around the world, and no doubt simplifying al Qaeda's recruiting strategy. But even as the war machine rolls, its target becomes vaguer. Are we at war with bin Laden? His organization? The Taliban? Terrorists worldwide, whoever they may be, and the 60 nations that may house them? With evil itself? We don't really know, but our dim, provincial, unelected p