But some other things, for instance, we don’t know when bin Laden was born—even the scholarship over the last ten years doesn’t agree on when he was born—most people seem to agree that it was March 1957, but Steve Coll puts it at 1958. And we don’t know when his father was born. There’s also a lot of debate over how religious bin Laden’s father really was, how well bin Laden knew his father, how much of an influence he was. With all of those things, you can’t go to someone and say, “What was the most influential element in your childhood?” You can’t ask any of those questions. So we were relying a lot on interviews he had given, but also on interviews with CIA agents who had investigated him or profiled him. You never like to use secondary sources, but that’s what we had to rely on.
I did a review of obituaries that I saw on Sunday night and Monday for CJR, but I noticed that there weren’t actually that many out there. A lot of articles that came out about bin Laden’s death included some biographical information, but they weren’t slated as “obituaries” per se. What’s your opinion on that?
Right, well, this is one of the questions that I had in the intervening years—the question of whether this person merited this huge obituary anymore, or whether this would all be sort of subsumed into a larger story about his death, but that we wouldn’t have a full-blown obituary. In 2001 when this was first written, it was probably unthinkable that we wouldn’t have something really big about who he was, because at the time, people didn’t really know a lot about him. So some of this may have to do with the fact that this came late on a Sunday with very little notice—we didn’t know it was coming, so it was a great luxury that we had this, and we probably weren’t going to say, “We’re not going to run this.” It helped us to create a front page that was completely bin Laden.
I can’t speak for other papers, but there’s probably an element of thinking, “Well, we’re not going to get him, so this isn’t a pressing issue.” There may also be a certain amount of, as you say, we give obituaries to people like Elizabeth Taylor and Gerald Ford—is this someone that we really want to know more about? But I think a lot of people read obituaries to learn something about life, about how the world works, about what individual stories tell us about some universal idea. So in that way, I think it’s absolutely right decision to have an obituary for bin Laden.
I guess I can also imagine some outlets saying, Well, maybe people might want to know more about bin Laden, but we also don’t want to “honor” him with an obituary. Although most of the obituaries I have seen have handled it very well—it has to be a very subtle thing.
Right, it’s not “He was a great father to his children .”
Exactly. But it’s a biography, and he’s an important part of history.
One other interesting footnote is, for the Sunday Times I had written this Week in Review piece about conspiracy theories, so I woke up Monday morning and I was getting all these reader emails, and that’s how I knew that the obituary had run. But then I started getting all these emails saying things like, “He’s not really dead, we don’t have photographs, the DNA evidence isn’t real,” and I thought, “God, I just finished writing about this!” It was kind of unclear to me, were these people conspiracy theorists who had read the conspiracy theory story? Or were they conspiracy theorists who had read the bin Laden obituary?
When you were able to sort through all of your emails, what kinds of responses to the obituary did you mostly get, from the industry and from your readers?
You know, I have not actually had anyone say anything about the issue we were just discussing, the question of whether we should “honor” someone like this. I have not had a single reader write to me and say, “Why did you waste all this time on him?” My friends who are readers have sort of impressed upon me the historic element of this, more than maybe I realized myself. And I’ve gotten a lot of reader feedback saying that it was great to have this historical background and just sort of understand again—because, again, we’ve stopped talking about bin Laden—so I think it was really important for people to be reminded of just why he came to loom so large over our country.