THE PERIL OF BEING #3….On Friday Timothy Noah wrote in Slate about al-Qaeda’s “suspiciously large number of members holding the organization’s No. 3 position.” After accounting for one he had missed in an earlier article, he said:

So, make that five No. 3s in al-Qaida over the past four years. Which ? assuming there’s only one No. 3 at a time ? would be a turnover more rapid even than that for Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts. Maybe our strategy is to beggar al-Qaida by forcing it to make too many severance payments.

The periodic reports that we’ve killed Osama’s #3 guy make good fodder for late night jokes, but I’m curious: why does anyone think this is really noteworthy?

After all, the United States executive branch has a #1, a #2, and then about two dozen cabinet-level officers who could fairly be described as #3s. Corporations frequently have a dozen senior vice presidents who all report to the CEO. This is a pretty standard kind of organization chart.

So maybe Osama has five or six #3s. Or given the decentralized nature of al-Qaeda that we’re constantly hearing about, maybe there are 10 or 20 lunatics who call themselves #3. And if that’s the case, the fact that we manage to pick off one of these guys per year doesn’t really seem either very unusual or very impressive. In fact, at the rate their #3 executives are taking early retirement, al-Qaeda may be more stable than IBM.

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