So this weekend, I was traveling to Indiana, and I came back Sunday night, and I was exchanging emails with my editor about something completely different, and at the end of this email exchange, he said, “Turn on your television. Osama bin Laden is dead.” And I wrote back, “You know I wrote the obituary years ago ” and he wrote back, “No, but I’ll let them know.” By the time he wrote to them, they were already pulling it up. I gather that the weekend editor had said, “My God, do we have an obituary?”—and I think everyone was very surprised to find that we did. And so it went up fairly quickly. Tim Weiner, who’s my colleague in the obituaries department, topped off the story, and when it came down to it, I didn’t get any more calls on Sunday; it just appeared in the paper.
In many ways, it was strange for me, because I was reading it as a regular reader. I did wonder, “Does this stand up to the test of time?” I remember in particular the last paragraph, when you’re writing such a long piece, you always think, “How can I wrap this up?” And I remember writing the bit about how, what bin Laden really wanted was to become a martyr to his cause, and that if the United States ever killed him, that this would cause a great uprising in the Arab world against the United States. So when I read that, and it was interesting, I immediately was back in the moment when I actually had written that, ten years ago, and thought, “Yes, this did stand the test of time,” because this was still the question, I think, when we killed him. You see it now in the debate over whether to release his photo—the question of, Does he become even larger in death than he was in life?
So you didn’t update or tweak the obituary at all in the past ten years?
I don’t know; the obituaries department may have done some of that, but I did not.
Was there any editing that went on on Sunday?
Well, the lede was largely my lede, because I remember writing it. But obviously the circumstances of where he was killed, the first couple of paragraphs about how it had happened, and that the president had gone on television late at night to say it—there was obviously that kind of updating.
But there wasn’t any last-minute addition of historical information, biographical information about bin Laden’s life that has come out in the past ten years?
I couldn’t see it, but I don’t know. There was nothing that I can remember.
What was it like to see something on the front page that you had written ten years earlier? Whenever I see something I’ve written even a few months ago, I hate it, because I always see things I could have done differently .
Well, right, in the past ten years there have been so many historical accounts to come out. I have on my desk right now the Michael Scheuer book, Osama Bin Laden, so I would have loved to have included some of that. But I think, this is perhaps lame, but I think we all got used to thinking that this wasn’t going to be an issue, and if it were, we would have time. And of course, we should know that, in today’s news cycle in particular, you don’t have the luxury of time anymore. Especially if it happens at 11:30 on a Sunday evening.
Yeah, it’s amazing to realize how online news has changed from 2001 to today.
Bin Laden is not just any celebrity. How was the process of researching and writing this different than another kind of obituary—what were the challenges there that may not have been involved in writing an obituary of, say, Elizabeth Taylor?
Well, it’s common practice when we do obituaries of politicians or celebrities to call them up and ask for final interviews. Obviously that wasn’t going to be an issue here. We had to rely on past interviews, particularly the interview that John Miller of ABC News had done of Osama, I think that was the first one. There was one book, I believe Peter Bergen’s book was out at the time, and I remember consulting that a lot. That was one challenge—there wasn’t a lot of scholarship out there at the time. But keep in mind we had also done a three-part series on Al Qaeda earlier that year, we had written about this in the paper in 2001, so we did have some of that knowledge and background.