Terra Incognita: Hunted to the ends of the Earth

Bin Laden joins long list of people who outgrew their power, brought ruin on themselves and their people and were eventually brought down.

Osama bin Laden 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Osama bin Laden 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There has been some shock at the state in which Osama bin Laden was found. Despite the presence of a wife and at least eight children, his house’s interior looked like something out of a trailer park. Where was all the Bin Laden wealth? A CNN report noted “the candid recording of an aging bin Laden... portrays him as an ordinary man, not a terror mastermind.”
But in trading his one-time power and menacing airs for a life in hiding, he joined a pantheon of other leaders, some vile, some less so, who have brought ruin to themselves and their people. In the classical period, several Athenian statesmen came to very un-statesmenlike ends. Themistocles, the “Glory of the Law,” was a populist who rose to prominence when Athens was becoming a great power. He fought in both wars against the Persian empire, and helped construct Athens’ walls and its great navy. But he earned the ire of his countrymen and was exiled, travelling from one lesser city-state to another until he found his way to Persia. Plutarch, the historian, bemoaned the fact that he “lived on for a long time without concern.”
He died in exile, perhaps by suicide.
The Athenian statesman Alcibiades long outlived his fame. Born in 450 BCE, he became a general of Athens at its height, during the Peloponessian war. Accused of sacrilegious actions, he was condemned to death while out leading the Athenian fleet in an invasion of Sicily. He subsequently defected to his country’s great enemy, Sparta. In 412, having fallen out of favor in Sparta, he became a traitor once more and joined the Persians. After further travails, the Athenian found himself a refugee in Phrygia – a passive and dull tributary of Persia. In 404 BCE, living with his mistress on a pathetic estate, Alcibiades was surprised by assassins who set fire to his home. He rushed outside with a dagger to confront them and was killed by a hail of arrows.
In 336 CE, Darius III inherited a Persian empire that stretched from the gates of Europe to India. But he was unlucky enough to be confronted by the Macedonian- Greek king Alexander. For three years he fought battle after battle with the Greeks, until no more armies could be raised. Rather than surrender, the hapless Persian retreated to Bactria, in what is now Afghanistan. Pursued to the ends of the Earth by Alexander, his own followers killed him.
Hannibal, the great general of Rome’s enemy, Carthage, died in similar obscurity. Born in 247 BCE, he was raised by his father, a Carthaginian warlord engaged in subduing parts of Spain. Assuming command of the Carthaginian army in 229, he led the famous march over the Alps and spent years slaughtering Roman legions sent to fight him. Rome eventually landed an army close to his country’s capital, near modern-day Tunis, and Hannibal was recalled to Africa. He lost a major battle and, at the behest of Rome, went into exile in Tyre. Hannibal then became a military advisor to the Seleucid empire in Syria, but eventually had to flee Crete for Bythnia – a small, useless kingdom in Asia Minor (Turkey). Still hounded by the Romans, who wanted him dead, he took poison by the Sea of Marmara around 183 BCE. His grave was unknown to his countrymen, even in his own time.
In the 1860s the president of Paraguay, Francisco Solano Lopez, fancied himself a great leader. He embroiled his small, landlocked country in a war with its giant neighbors; Brazil and Argentina. For six years, Paraguay struggled against its enemies, losing much of its adult male population. Lopez ended up living in the mountains, accompanied by just three men, where he was found by Brazilian cavalry and killed, shouting “I die with my fatherland.” Paraguay did not recover from the destruction until a century later.
CHE GUEVARA, the great hero of the international Left, whose face is the icon of so many college students, was born in Argentina in 1928. A trained doctor, he found his way to Guatemala and then Mexico, where he met a young and ambitious Fidel Castro. In 1956 he was with Castro during the invasion of Cuba. After the revolutionaries had triumphed, Che became a key member of the ruling communist elite, but eventually had a falling out with Castro and left the country to lead other revolutions. Briefly in Africa, he eventually moved to Bolivia. But by this time the CIA had sent a team to help the Bolivians and Che, who was ill, was eventually hounded to his death, his hands cut off and his body buried in an undisclosed location.
Pablo Escobar is thought to have been one of the wealthiest criminals in history. Born in 1949 in Colombia, he began as a contraband smuggler, but discovered that with cocaine he could make a great deal more money. Eventually he was shipping 70 tons to the US each month. Escobar constructed his own zoo, and was elected to Colombia’s congress. But he grew too powerful and was implicated in bombing an airline and the kidnapping and murder of numerous people. With US help, the Colombians hunted him down and killed him on a rooftop in 1993. The image of the shirtless, overweight drug lord, with his trademark jeans turned up at the bottom, was beamed all over the world.
Over the centuries, many people have come to bad ends after long hunts.
That bin Laden wasn’t caught and put on trial is proper; like his forebears, he lived by the sword and he died by it. In shooting him, the US Navy SEALs were following historical precedent rather than modern conventions.
The writer has a PhD from Hebrew University, and is a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.