Six years ago, in March 2002, I happened to attend a barbecue in the backyard of some good friends. As the flesh sizzled on the grill, we attempted small talk to pass the time, as we usually did. But in those early months, feelings were still too raw for small talk.
Fortunately, there was beer.
Someone had read an article–“The Battle of the Organizational Charts”–comparing the relative efficacies of a classical top-down hierarchy like General Motors and a distributed network like al-Qaeda. Apparently, the term “al-Qaeda” means “the database” in Arabic and was coined in the 1980s, when we were fielding freedom fighters in our Afghan proxy war against the Soviets. Not an operational organization itself, al-Qaeda is a sort of “Ford Foundation for jihadist startups,” as a pundit put it, that provides support in the form of financing, expertise, and coördination. In an “ah-ha moment,” one of us, with a mouth full of pulled pork, bragged that our old college crowd could form such an organization. Even better–because we weren’t limited to box-cutter technology, we could out-qaeda al-Qaeda.
It was a beer-soaked boast, soon forgotten. But not a week later, the president of the United States held a news conference at the White House. When reporters asked him about Osama bin Laden, who had recently escaped capture by our troops in Afghanistan, he said, “I truly am not that concerned about him.”
In all honesty, this presidential statement floored me. Not concerned about bin Laden? How could our president not be concerned about him? Was there anything our government could have found to say to the American people that day more knuckleheaded than this?
A few of my friends gathered again, this time stone sober. We played one of bin Laden’s videotaped sermons to the West. This lunatic with a Kalashnikov, wagging his finger at our whole culture, had somehow slipped through our military’s grasp at Tora Bora. We should have had him–but we didn’t. And then–according to the president–he and his whole murderous crew dropped off our radar altogether?
That didn’t sit well with my friends and me, but we weren’t sure what to make of it. The news-conference dismissal might have been nothing more than our president’s sometimes difficult way with words. Or his inability to admit to failure. But we didn’t think so. Most likely it was the president’s way of admitting that the hunt for bin Laden had gotten lost in the shuffle on the road to war in Iraq. It made us wonder if there wasn’t a place for private citizens in the war on terror. Perhaps we could lend a hand.
An affinity group can form around any mutual interest: tasting Beaujolais wines, singing in a choir, attending a communal sauna. We called our group the American Curling Club. We are a small group of men and women who roomed and/or socialized together in college back in the day. We came from middle-class families and attended a prestigious, but not Ivy League, school. There wasn’t a legacy among us. We pretty much put ourselves through school with student loans, scholarships and grants, parental handouts, and part-time jobs.
After graduation, we went our separate ways but kept in touch. We attended each other’s weddings, and we are watching each other’s kids grow up. We have built comfortable lives. We have climbed to upper-management positions in our chosen fields. We firmly believe in freedom and free markets. We are Christians, or at least most of us are. We’re your average janes and joes with no particular ax to grind, except this one–Osama bin Laden must pay in full measure for what he has done.