What Does Osama Bin Laden Want?
Nothing we have.
It is a mistake to assume that killing Bin Laden means killing his movement. It's true that Bin Laden is an iconic leader who inspires his followers and millions of sympathizers in the Muslim world. But eliminating Bin Laden would do nothing to decrease the intensity of the other militant Islamists. The Afghan war created a cadre of warriors and belligerent clerics who are constantly recruiting. Bin Laden has a core of highly trained aides ready to continue his work. His trainees are scattered in two dozen countries. It is hard to imagine how the United States could neutralize all of them. And attacks on Bin Laden have only increased his popularity: Killing him would likely rally many more Muslims to his cause.
(Some pundits have suggested that killing Bin Laden would be effective because it would stanch the flow of cash to terrorists. This may not be so. Bin Laden's groups do get funds from his personal fortune, but they also finance operations by dunning wealthy Gulf Arabs and by siphoning off donations to Muslim charities. And the terror organization is cheap. They don't use heavy weapons, and it costs almost nothing to house and train hundreds of men in Afghanistan.)
Is there anything we can do to persuade Bin Laden to stop? The terror groups Americans are familiar with—Palestinian bombers and hijackers, IRA hard men—have desires we understand. They perform acts of terror in order to gain sympathy or sow fear. That sympathy or fear is a means to their end: political recognition, a state, compensation. They seek to participate in our world.
But Bin Laden and his followers are alarming because they don't want anything from us. They don't want our sympathy. They want no material thing we can offer them. They don't want to participate in the community of nations. (They don't really believe in the nation-state.) They are motivated by religion, not politics. They answer to no one but their god, so they certainly won't answer to us.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Photograph of Osama Bin Laden by Ho/Reuters.