Finding World's Bad Guys Often Not Easy

He added that when President Bush says things like, "I want justice, and there's an old poster out West, that I recall, said, 'Wanted, Dead or Alive,' " as he did on Sept. 17, 2001, that doesn't necessarily help, either.

"The United States has had the unfortunate tendency of personalizing the struggle," Seale said. "This is a huge mistake. These people are icons perhaps, one could say, but there are many people who feel like them, and if you decapitate these organizations, new leaders emerge."

In fact, as bin Laden continued to elude the U.S. dragnet, American officials grew more tempered in their remarks: "Terror is bigger than one person," President Bush said in March 2002, setting the pattern for more recent comments.

Unflagging Pursuit

The rhetorical shift does not signal any reduction of efforts to pursue bin Laden. Officials and analysts contacted for this story say the 9/11 attacks make him a special case.

"I think with all of these people we're going to hunt them down until we get them," said Richard Clarke, counterterrorism czar under presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, and now an ABCNEWS consultant. "I don't think we're going to lose interest."

But history has shown pursuers can lose interest.

Nazi hunters learned the hard way the resolve of governments to catch even the most despised fugitives can peter out. After an initial push to prosecute Nazis at the Nuremberg war crimes trials immediately following World War II, things changed.

"Another war quickly intervened, and that was the Cold War," the Wiesenthal Center's Cooper said. "The Cold War was the best news that the Nazis could have dreamed of."

Many apparently went from being sought as war criminals to being allowed to slip into safe exile, often in South America, Cooper said. He added some lesser, non-German figures even fled to the United States, claiming possible persecution by communists back home.

"It was left to individuals [like Simon Wiesenthal] to try to find the trail," Cooper added. "Only with the end of the Cold War was it possible to really get cooperation" from some governments.

He believes some Nazis stayed protected in South America because of bribes and occasionally maybe even local ideological sympathy — perhaps in the manner current fugitives hide out among pockets of supporters.

But there's an important difference between the hunt for Nazis and the hunt for bin Laden, Cooper said: It is far less likely America will lose resolve for catching the most recent crop of international enemies, because this time the United States is "the aggrieved party," rather than citizens of foreign nations who were victims of Nazi concentration camps.

"The current situation is, in many ways, completely different," Cooper said. "You have the full force, the full resources, of the most powerful nation in the history of planet Earth."

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