The myth of bin Laden, dead or alive
CNN New York
NEW YORK (CNN) -- As yet another intelligence report surfaces, alleging that Osama bin Laden may still be alive, his very elusiveness may only be adding to the mythic quality of his reputation.
Germany's intelligence network says bin Laden is probably in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that he authorized but didn't plan the September 11 attacks, Reuters reports. (Full story)
Whatever his role, bin Laden's reputation among followers could be growing in absentia.
"I don't think the bin Laden phenomenon is an individual phenomenon. It is a phenomenon about people looking for symbols," says Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland.
But hasn't it always been that way? People look for human symbols in whom they can invest their hopes, their resentments, their anger against others.
When Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara disappeared into the jungles of South America in the 1960s to lead Marxist rebellions, his very invisibility enlarged the cult of Che.
And it was a similar fear that spurred the hunt for Guevara, whose romantic, revolutionary aura took a bullet in a jungle in Bolivia in 1967.
When Adolf Hitler killed himself in his bunker in Berlin and his body was burned, his death, later confirmed by his skull, was generally accepted by even his most fanatical followers.
But myths grew around other Nazi officials who escaped capture
Was Martin Borman, Hitler's close aide, dead or alive? And where was Josef Mengele, who committed medical crimes at Auschwitz and then escaped to South America where he died in 1979?
Despite all evidence, myths can live on as a long as people want to believe in them. That is their power.
Osama bin Laden is not yet a myth, he is simply a missing person, and a dangerous one to many in his own world.
"He is terrifying to Middle Eastern elites. He is terrifying to Middle Eastern governments. He is terrifying to those who aspire to have a normal life because ... if it could be done to the United States, it could be done to them," Telhami said.
But even out of sight, how strong will bin Laden's hold be on the imagination and support of those who look to him?
"Those people who are going to rally behind him are going to rally behind him dead or alive," Telhami said. "You're going to have a core that no matter what happens to him are going to be his core supporters."
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