Osama bin Laden was the world’s most powerful terrorist. He was also, undeniably, the most famous. And as befits any celebrity, when his death was announced, many news organizations were ready with a biographical piece that had been pre-written and -filed in preparation for the occasion, perhaps years beforehand. Many news reports to come out since Sunday night contain background information about bin Laden’s life, but a few of them are specifically presented as “obituaries” in the traditional “Person, Age, Why they are famous” format.
One of the best, I think, comes from the Guardian, which has not only a full-length obituary but a photo gallery, as they would have for any dead celebrity: “Osama bin Laden: His life in pictures.” Might as well, right? Can you spot him in this 1971 photo of a bin Laden family trip to Sweden?
The obituarists, Jason Burke and Lawrence Joffe, do an impressive job of capturing the nuance and the enigma of the man and the myth:
His life was one of extremes and of contradictions. Born to great wealth, he lived in relative poverty. A graduate of civil engineering, he assumed the mantle of a religious scholar. A gifted propagandist who had little real experience of battle, he projected himself as a mujahid, a holy warrior. A man who called for a return to the values and social systems of the seventh century as a means of restoring a just order in today’s world, he justified the use of advanced modern technology to kill thousands through a rigorous and anachronistic interpretation of Islamic law. One of the most notorious people on the planet, Bin Laden lived for years in obscurity, his public presence limited to intermittent appearances in videos on the internet. A man who professed to have sacrificed all for others and to care nothing for himself, he was fiercely conscious of posterity.
After a powerfully told tale, the Guardian piece ends very simply with the “he is survived by” line customary to the obituary format:
Bin Laden once claimed: “It is our duty to bring light to the world.” Yet behind his rhetoric of righteousness, divine justice and retribution, there was nothing but darkness.
He had four wives and 19 children. One of his sons was killed alongside him.
By comparison, BBC News’s obituary is pretty disappointing. It begins with a bland understatement:
Osama Bin Laden came to the world’s attention on 11 September 2001, when the attacks on the United States left more than 3,000 people dead and hundreds more injured.
And, speaking of understatements, after describing bin Laden as “a major thorn in the side of America” and declaring that “It comes as no surprise, then, that both the US and Israel are believed to have sent assassination squads after him,” the piece wraps up:
To his supporters, Bin Laden was a fighter for freedom against the US and Israel, not, as he was to many in the West, a terrorist with the blood of thousands of people on his hands.
Stateside, Amy Ellis Nutt and J. Scott Orr have a piece in the Newark Star-Ledger that shows why Nutt won a Pulitzer this year for feature writing. “In his twisted calculus, Sept. 11, 2001, was bin Laden’s finest hour,” they write.
For years, bin Laden portrayed himself as above the laws of any nation, subject only to his own extreme interpretation of the Quran and answerable only to his personal vision of God.
His followers saw him as a brilliant military strategist and a spiritual leader who offered an eternity in paradise in exchange for their ephemeral lives on earth. It was a bargain many accepted with righteous zeal.