The Next Dr. Evil
Who will replace Osama as demon in chief?
Remember that morning in 1998 when you woke up and knew—just knew—that Osama Bin Laden was the United States' Public Enemy No. 1? Three weeks before, you hadn't heard of him, but suddenly there was collective agreement: This hairy monster was our very own Blofeld, the devil at whose feet all crimes could be laid—not merely the U.S. embassy bombings that brought him to our attention, but the first World Trade Center bombing, a plot to assassinate the pope, another to crash a dozen airliners in the Pacific. …
Americans like to personalize our foreign policy problems. When something goes wrong abroad, it's not an "issue"; it's someone's fault. We always put a face to our misery. And every so often, we anoint some foreign malcontent as the arch-fiend responsible for all our global difficulties. Before Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein had a decadelong run as Dr. Evil. Hussein had succeeded Panamanian thug Manuel Noriega. Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi reigned through much of the '80s, though the colonel could never match the whiskery satanic infamy of his predecessor, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. (Other dastards have had brief interludes at the top, too. Click
It takes more than bloodthirstiness and an anti-social personality to turn an everyday ruffian into our devil. The great American villain should spew exceptionally nasty anti-American rhetoric. He must have a sinister or comical appearance: Beards and mustaches are encouraged, so are uniforms or exotic national costumes. (Noriega's acne scars confirmed his iniquity.) He should possess the Bond villain's combination of ruthlessness and secretiveness. He should develop alarming weapons or employ heinous tactics (biological weapons, airplane terrorism, etc.), and he should reside in some hard-to-target hideaway (Qadaffi's tent, Saddam's bunkers). He should threaten not simply American lives but the American way of life. He should either undermine American values from within (as drug dealers do), or he should offer the rest of the world a compelling challenge to American ideals (as the potent Islam of Khomeini and Bin Laden does).
These are high standards. When Bin Laden is killed or captured, is there anyone qualified to inherit his black crown?
Americans will first look to Bin Laden's al-Qaida to provide a sufficiently malevolent heir. Bin Laden's deputy, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri,is the obvious candidate, but he's no more likely to escape than Bin Laden. The other al-Qaida lieutenants are unknown, and the organization is presumably so broken that no single dark champion can emerge. The Philippines, Somalia, and Indonesia all claim al-Qaida-allied Islamic guerrillas, but none of these movements is powerful, and none has a charismatic leader.
In the absence of an al-Qaida heir, attention is already turning to the obvious candidate for demonization, Saddam Hussein. Hawks are rallying for a war against the "ultimate terrorist." Hussein is certainly a superb candidate for top scourge. He's evil, he's incorrigible, he makes and uses weapons of mass destruction, he murders his own citizens, he despises the United States. Hussein, in short, knows the part. He will almost certainly replace Bin Laden. But Hussein is an unsatisfying choice—been there, done that. We know how bad he is; we spent a decade throwing darts at his face. It's hard to whip up the same enthusiasm about him the second time around.
If Hussein doesn't capture the imagination, or if we quickly topple him, we'll need to find an alternate viper. There aren't as many promising applicants as you'd expect. Traditional American enemies have behaved relatively well recently. Qaddafi isn't making trouble. Young Bashir Assad of Syria is colorless and bureaucratic. The mullahs of Iran have mellowed toward the United States.
Among the ranks of terrorists, the name that surfaces is Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah's top terror strategist. Before Sept. 11, Mughniyah had been responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist. He masterminded the 1983 bombings of Beirut's U.S. Marine barracks and U.S. embassy. He kidnapped and murdered Americans in Beirut, hijacked an airliner in 1985, and blew up Jewish buildings in Argentina during the early '90s. (Some far-fetched intelligence reports posit a grand-unified theory of terror linking Mughniyah, Bin Laden, Hussein, and the Sept. 11 attacks.) But Mughniyah is not a vivid candidate for demon. He avoids publicity—there are no known pictures of him. He has none of the rhetorical or ideological muscle of a Bin Laden—Mughniyah is a killer, not a leader. And he hasn't targeted Americans for more than a decade.
Nor do emerging terror operations supply an obvious Bin Laden sub. Hamas, the Palestinian terror bombing outfit, follows Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, an old, infirm cleric. Hamas is murderous, and it has potent ideology. But Hamas' real battle is with Israel. It has never targeted Americans. And Yassin doesn't have the personality to be an Übervillain. Other groups, like Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers and the Algerian Islamic terror group GIA, are ruthless and bloody-minded, but the United States doesn't care about their fights, and they don't care about us.
The world's worst dictators also fall short. Myannmar's regime, which used to bear the fabulously horrible name SLORC, represses, tortures, and murders its own citizens. But it has kept its brutality inside its borders. Zimbabwe's RobertMugabe is killing opponents, encouraging mob warfare against whites, and generally destroying a prosperous country. But again, the U.S. interests in Zimbabwe are too weak to warrant demonizing Mugabe. North Korea's Kim Jong-il has inherited his father's paranoia and appetite for exotic weapons. But Kim has been experimenting with rapprochement recently, and he hasn't threatened U.S. forces in South Korea. Besides, his ideology is so hopelessly wrong-headed and out of date that he's hard to take seriously. Kim could certainly kill Americans, but there is no danger anyone will embrace his crazed ego-Stalinism. (On the other hand, the villain of the next Bond movie will be a North Korean general.) China's Jiang Zemin suppresses dissent and foments anti-Americanism, but neither China nor the United States seeks an overt struggle with the other. (Even if China did pursue enmity, Jiang is too bland to be cast as supervillain.)
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.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.