In this season of blockbuster movies, it's useful to remember that one of the first lessons aspiring novelists and screenwriters learn is that the goodness of a hero is defined by a single quality - the badness of his opponent. From Superman's Lex Luthor to Batman's Joker to Indiana Jones' Nazis to Luke Skywalker's Darth Vader, for a hero to be perceived as larger than life, he must have a larger than life enemy.
If Frodo, for example, hadn't been forced to do battle with the supernatural powers of the Ring and its minions, his story would have merely been a boring travelogue. But with an army of supernaturally brilliant, evil, and powerful opponents, Frodo had the opportunity to display his extraordinary inner courage and resourcefulness, qualities he didn't even realize he had until they were called forth by the peril of an awesome evil.
This is a lesson that was not lost on Karl Rove and George W. Bush. If they could recast George as the opponent of a power as great as the Ring, then the rather ordinary Dubya could become the extraordinary SuperGeorge, rising from his facileness to prevail over supernatural powers of evil.
Bill Clinton had a similar chance, but passed on it for the good of America and the world. When bin Laden attacked us in the 1990s - several times - in an attempt to raise his own stature in the Islamic world, Bill Clinton dealt with Osama like the criminal he was. He enlisted Interpol and the police and investigative agencies of various nations, brought in our best intelligence agents, and missed bin Laden in a missile-launched assassination attempt by a scant twenty minutes (bringing derisive howls from Republicans that he was trying to "wag the dog" and deflect attention from the Monica investigations).
As Clinton left office, he and the CIA were tightening the noose on bin Laden, and his National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, told me that when he briefed his successor, Condoleezza Rice, he told her to put bin Laden and al-Qaeda at the top of her priority list and thus finish the job the Clinton administration had nearly completed.
As we know, when Rice, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush, et al finally came up with the priorities for their new administration, al-Qaeda had been replaced by tax cuts for Bush's rich donors on the "A" list, and didn't even appear on the "B" list.
Thus came 9/11, despite warnings given to the President on August 6, 2001 that in the immediate future al-Qaeda intended to hijack commercial planes and use them to attack east coast targets. (Bush apparently took the warnings seriously - Ashcroft immediately stopped flying on commercial aircraft, and Bush moved to Texas for the longest vacation in the history of the American presidency...and even when that was over, he preferred Florida to target-listed Washington, D.C.)
In the days after the 9/11 attacks, America had the sympathy of the world, and the police and intelligence agencies of even normally hostile nations offered to help us track down and bring to justice its perpetrators. Mullah Omar of Afghanistan offered to arrest bin Laden on our behalf and turn him over to a western nation for prosecution; Moslems all over the world were horrified at the actions of one of their own, a fundamentalist turned criminal and murderer.
It would have been so easy to accept Omar's offer, bring in bin Laden, dismantle the training camps and track down their attendees and sponsors, and launch an international effort to disassemble and render impotent al-Qaeda. It probably could have been done in a year or less, given the intensity of the worldwide empathy for citizens of America and the many other nations whose people died in the World Trade Center. Over 500 American soldiers would still be alive, and thousands would not have lost arms, legs, and eyes. Over 40,000 innocent Afghans and Iraqis would still be alive.
But Karl Rove knew that George W. Bush had a problem, and saw in bin Laden the solution.
Bush had not defeated Al Gore fair and square, and was seen by most Americans as a spoiler, an illegitimate leader. As soon as the details of his proposed "supply side" voodoo economics hit the press, the markets went into a nosedive.
And already there were stories circulating in the media of his cozy relationship with corrupt oil barons like Ken Lay and the secret energy meetings in the Spring of 2001 - before 9/11 - in which Cheney, Lay, and others in the oil industry were apparently carving up the oil fields of Iraq. Bush, in short, was seen as a buffoonish pretender, an ineffectual manager, and a sellout to big oil and other scandal-ridden industries. He was the butt of late-night jokes, a former college cheerleader, a "dry drunk" (except when tempted by pretzels), an inside trader, a small man on the national and international stage.
George W. desperately needed his own Lex Luthor if he was to reinvent himself as Superman.
Rove and Bush realized that if they simply branded Osama as the criminal thug that he was - the leader of an obscure Islamic mafia with fewer than 20,000 serious members - they wouldn't have the super-villain they needed for George W. Bush to be seen as a super-hero. If Bush only authorized a police action, he'd miss a golden opportunity to position himself as the Battle Commander of The War Against Evil Incarnate.
And so began the building of the mythos. Osama as evil genius. Osama as worldwide mastermind. Even Osama as the antichrist (as General Boykin reminded us so candidly).
Even though Osama is almost certainly dead or badly disabled (otherwise we'd see him on the video he so loved to use before Tora Bora), Bush can't afford to acknowledge that - to retain his Superman pose, George must continue to have a Kryptonite-equipped foe.
If the remnants of al-Qaeda try to pull our strings by increasing "chatter" about particular flights, for example, we must hyper-react with many press conferences and televised appearances by Tom Ridge. Every action must be trumpeted. We must keep "Terror Alerts" on the screens of TVs nationwide as long as possible. We must remind the people that George The Good is battling the One True Dragon, so they will renew his Sacred Mission for another four years.
For George to remain SuperGeorge throughout his term of office, and thus to pull the country behind him for an FDR-sized transformation of the nation on behalf of his corporate masters, George needs a war every bit as huge as FDR's WWII. And that requires Osama to be as big as Hitler in the minds of Americans. Thus, Richard Perle writes in his breathless and hyperbolic new book An End To Evil: "There is no middle way for Americans: It is victory or holocaust."
Pearl laments (although his ilk fought Clinton's attacks on bin Laden) that "Terrorists attacked and murdered Americans in East Africa, in Yemen, in Saudi Arabia - and America responded to these acts of war as if they were ordinary crimes." (He conveniently leaves out the largest attack of all, on Reagan's watch, in Lebanon, which led Reagan to simply fold our tents and leave.) These were acts of WAR, Perle and Frum argue.
But there is no nation that has attacked us - these criminal acts were perpetrated by an Islamic mafia that no more represents the interests or opinions of the majority of the world's Muslims than Tim McVeigh represented the majority of America's Christians.
This archetypal transformation of George W. Bush from spoiled, rich pretender-to-the-presidency into the caped (well, flight-suited) SuperGeorge, Defender Of All Things Good And Right has had a powerful impact on the American people, and Rove hopes to ride it to victory in 2004.
But there is a weakness in it, which the Democrats can use to stop Bush's demagogic PR machine and ongoing destruction of American democracy.
Howard Dean was the first to raise a fist full of Kryptonite against SuperGeorge when he suggested we should internationalize the efforts against al-Qaeda and involve more police agencies. Dean's speeches - particularly his speech on foreign policy - make clear that while he realizes the very real danger al-Qaeda represents, he also knows that Bush's superhero go-it-alone posturing is doing us - and democracy itself - more harm than good.
To the extent Democrats can de-mythologize bin Laden, they will deprive Bush of his superhero costume. Bin Laden-as-wretched-criminal must become part of the lexicon of the Democratic worldview.
Osama bin Laden may well be a sociopath and a criminal, but he does not have supernatural proportions, and we only empower him in the eyes of other Muslims by crediting them to him. If his weapons are potentially more lethal than past terrorists, it's a testament to the technology of weapons, not to the power of Osama.
And if, God forbid, he is successful in pulling off another conspicuous attack against America or Americans, it's critical that a chorus of rational voices in America immediately define him as a criminal, call for criminal prosecutions as European nations have successfully used against their terrorist opponents, and work to bring worldwide police agencies into the hunt.
We must repeatedly remind the American people that a horrific crime - not an act of war - was inflicted upon us on 9/11. Like the crimes of the IRA against the citizens of Britain, the crimes of the November 17th terrorist group against Greece, or the crimes of the Red Brigades against Italy, it will be best fought by investigators, intelligence operatives, and the highly effective web of police agencies that stretch across the world. Although less filled with shock and awe, these able people can bring al-Qaeda to justice without further elevating bin Laden or extending his reach and influence.
By recasting bin Laden from a super-villain into a banal criminal, we weaken support for him around the world. And we also deflate the heroic SuperGeorge action figure in the minds of average Americans, allowing more rational statesmen and women to bring this great nation back to the peace we held through so much of the last half of the 20th century.