Thomas Sutcliffe: Bin Laden at risk of boring his audience

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The Independent Online

So, after a long delay Osama has filed his copy at last. He's had three months to mull matters over since his last dispatch, and now he's let us have his views on Darfur, the Western response to Hamas's election success and - in a surprising extension of jihadi zeal - "Buddhist pagans", excoriated in passing for helping to prop up that nest of crusader infidels, the United Nations. Like previous publications by the most widely syndicated columnist on the planet, his latest piece has provoked a lot of reaction and follow-up commentary.

Indeed - from the narrow perspective of professional opinion-mongery I should confess I feel a certain envy for Osama. His deadlines are fabulously relaxed for one thing. "Anytime in the next six months, Osama - but no pressure. Let us have it when you feel the time is right".

For another I don't think he has to worry much about rewrites, and he can pretty much guarantee headline coverage - with senior politicians on both sides of the Atlantic falling over themselves to rebut or rephrase his musings.

It's what every columnist dreams of - every word and remark pored over, every idea parsed and analysed, even the very medium of the message subjected to frantic dissection. What did it mean that he'd filed by audio-tape? Is he so beleaguered that he can't risk giving away any clues? Or was he just having a bad beard day? Opinion was divided on this, as on everything else. The White House took the latest statement as proof that their nemesis was on the run, while Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit (and no friend to the current incumbency), read it as evidence that Osama was "at the top of his game".

But if that's true it's not exactly good news for the self-appointed figurehead of Islamic revival. This is not, after all, the game he wants to be in - issuing Wahabi boilerplate about world events in an attempt to suggest that he's still in command of them. What Osama wants is a new caliphate. What he's got is an opinionate - an open line to the world's media which allows him to occasionally remind us that he's still breathing. But like any celebrity columnist hired on the strength of one notorious event he must be keenly aware that his capital is dwindling. Even worse, those he purports to speak for have begun to disassociate themselves from his remarks. He can still reliably goad John Kerry into having a pop at the Bush administration for failing to catch him - but the evidence is that other subscribers are getting bored.

To assume from this that the danger he represents is also fading would be a mistake. The reactions of the Sudan government and Hamas to Osama's unwelcome - and comically qualified - expressions of fraternity is evidence that they know they have something to lose from the association and nothing worthwhile to gain. However imperfectly, they have signed up to the idea that there might be purpose in dialogue - a concept that Osama explicitly attacks in his most recent dispatch, with a ferocity that shows he recognises the threat.

He, on the other hand, has little to gain from speech and a need for action which gets more urgent every day. His most recent statement shows how weak and marginalised he has become ... but remember, he was a relative nobody on 10 September 2001 and he knew exactly how to put that right.

Popular, vulgar, but profound

Walking round the Hunterian museum in the Royal College of Surgeons the other day I came across a Ron Mueck work I hadn't seen before - a meticulous quarter section of a boy's face, every adolescent hair in place and every tint and colour perfect. It wasn't a Mueck at all, of course, just one of Hunter's most arresting specimens. But like Mueck's latest unveiled sculpture In Bed it drew on the uncanny effect of marrying the hallmarks of the inanimate to undeniable signs of life. This carries a faint whiff of the carnival or Tussaud's which leaves some critics queasy. They correctly sense the essential vulgarity that makes Mueck's works so popular. What they miss is the philosophy that goes with it. They may well be vulgar but they are profoundly vulgar.

* It was intriguing to see that Cardinal Martini's suggestions that condom might be used in marriage to prevent the transmission of HIV has been followed not by Papal anathema but by the announcement of a commission to consider the Church's official position on the matter. We can't know yet whether the Pope just wants to show due diligence before condemning thousands more of the faithful to an unnecessary death or whether steps are being taken for a change. If it is the latter it will add to an impressive list of recent U-turns in recent years. First the Vatican admitted that Galileo was right to say the earth revolved round the Sun, then, more recently, that Darwin might have been on to something with all that stuff about monkeys. So perhaps they are bracing themselves to bow to the scientific consensus on the prophylactic advantages of latex. Don't hold your breath for an apology though. It took 359 years in the case of Galileo.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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