Let's mark Osama bin Laden down to a penny

Posted in United States | 07-Feb-05 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON A few weeks ago it was reported that the Bush administration was considering doubling the reward for the capture of Osama bin Laden from $25 million to $50 million. I totally agree with readjusting the reward for bin Laden's capture, I just think the Bush team has the number totally wrong.

The United States should announce that it is lowering the reward for bin Laden from $25 million to one penny, along with an autographed picture of President George W. Bush. At the same time, it should reduce the $25 million reward for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the chief terrorist in Iraq, to one pistachio and an autographed picture of Vice President Dick Cheney.

Don't get me wrong. Bin Laden and Zarqawi have murdered thousands of people. I want them brought in dead or alive - and preferably the former. If I thought $100 million would do it, I'd be for it. But these mega-rewards clearly are not working, and in many ways they are sending the totally wrong signals.

First, both of these guys are obviously megalomaniacs, who think the world is just hanging on their every word and waiting for their next video. All America is doing is feeding their egos, and telling them how incredibly important they are, when Washington not only puts a $25 million bounty on their heads, but in the case of bin Laden, doubles the figure. America is just enhancing their status on the Arab street as the Muslim warriors standing up to the United States, and only encouraging other megalomaniacs out there who might have similar fantasies to follow suit. Washington should be doing just the opposite - letting these two losers know that Americans don't think they are worth more than a penny or a pistachio.

But there is an even more important issue of principle at stake. America should not be paying Iraqis or Arabs or Pakistanis to get rid of their problem. Bin Laden and Zarqawi are a curse on their civilization. Their capture will have meaning and real value to them, to America and to the world, only if it is done by Arabs and Muslims for the sole purpose of purging their civilization of these two cancer cells.

Also, if bin Laden's or Zarqawi's own neighbors turn them in for nothing, it will have a much greater deterrent effect on others. After all, what story would you rather read after bin Laden's capture?

"Osama bin Laden was apprehended this morning after villagers turned him in to local police. The villagers collected the $50 million reward and then fled their country in ski masks, not wanting anyone to know their identities."

Or, "Osama bin Laden was captured this morning after villagers tipped off local police. One of the villagers, Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed, told reporters: 'This man sullied the name of Islam, a religion of mercy and compassion. There is a special place in hell for him. I will dance on his grave."'

What I would do with the $75 million budgeted as rewards for bin Laden and al-Zarqawi is use it instead to sponsor an essay contest for high school students in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Syria and Egypt. The contest entry form would say the following: "In 2,000 words, write an essay on one of these two topics: 1. Why do you believe the Arab-Muslim world is fully capable of achieving democratic, representative government and how do you envisage it coming about through peaceful changes inside your country, without any American or other outside help. 2. Write an essay about the lives of any of the great medieval Arab or Muslim mathematicians, scientists or philosophers and how their innovations helped to shape our world today."

The winners would be awarded visas and four-year scholarships to any accredited university in America to which they could gain acceptance. The winning essays would be posted on the Web in English, Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and French. What do you think would make America more secure? Rewarding one person for turning in bin Laden or putting thousands of young Arabs and Muslims through American schools?

Maybe we could even call them the "Bin Laden Scholars." I sort of like the idea of bin Laden sitting in a dark cave somewhere, composing his latest nutty video message, and suddenly learning that all the reward money America was devoting to killing him will go instead to killing his ideas - and to bringing young Arabs and Muslims closer to America rather than pushing them farther away.

I know the families of the Sept. 11 victims want justice and closure when it comes to bin Laden. So do I, and I can't think of any better punishment than having him turned in one day by one of his neighbors in return for a penny or a pistachio.