Osama bin Laden is dead or deformed badly by shrapnel or so ill that he can't talk or show himself. No, I have not had the privilege of administering him his last rites or seen him buried or had a CIA agent whisper this information into my ear.
However, because common sense is permitted in the court of public opinion, allow me to plead my case: When I saw the excerpts from the so-called "new" Bin Laden tape broadcast Monday, I knew that Bin Laden didn't exist anymore. This was a desperate move to somehow fuel the hopes of his disciples that their leader is still alive.
One portion of the tape likely shows a pre-December Bin Laden. His beard in the latest tape is darker than it was in a late December tape, and his skin looks much healthier. The grass is too green to represent a post-icy winter growth.
The fact that no one tried to camouflage or hide the background indicates that the people who sent the tape to the Al Jazeera TV station knew that the rocks and the mountains could disclose the location, but it did not matter anymore.
If Bin Laden were alive and well, we would have seen an up-to-date video that included a current newspaper or magazine to confirm the date.
So why did Bin Laden's friends create this charade?
The fact is, you cannot be a Middle East Islamic leader without pounding on your chest in a nonstop public fashion, reminding the masses that you are there to lead them.
On Sept. 11, when the first World Trade Center tower was struck, Bin Laden became the closest thing to an Islamic god to fundamentalist Muslims worldwide. He understood immediately the instant leadership options that were created for him through his murderous success. The world saw the video in which Bin Laden admitted with glee to a close-knit circle that even he had not realized how big the disaster would be.
Bin Laden, the instant Islamic mini-god, then paraded around Afghanistan and its training camps, accumulating more and more disciples. He felt safe among the Taliban, which had beaten the Soviets, and he felt admired, loved and protected by his followers.
Bin Laden had all the reasons to believe that he was the new Saladin, the 12th century Arab hero (who was really a Kurd) who won the decisive victory against the Christian Crusaders.
There is a tradition in the Middle East in which the leader impresses the masses with constant public appearances, sword-waving and colorful oratory. He impresses his audience, gains its admiration for his showmanship and in return is told that he's indeed the chosen one.
Bin Laden didn't show his face to the world for the last 41/2 months. Only Soviet leaders could afford that disconnect from their public, but that's a very long time for the Middle East. No Arab leader, living in an area that is so assassination-prone, can be absent that long without raising suspicions.
Not making an appearance in person or at least sending another tape to a friendly TV station is tantamount to nonexistence, especially when you have to compete, nowadays, with dramatic personalities such as Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein.
Osama bin Laden, indeed, no longer exists.
Ranan R. Lurie, a senior adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, is a syndicated columnist and political cartoonist.