Osama bin Laden, 54, Public Enemy No. 1

A review of the obits

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.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the prize for the day’s most stomach-turning obituary goes to Al Jazeera English, which gave its piece the subhead “With his long beard and wistful expression, bin Laden was one of the most instantly recognizable people on earth.” You can’t help but notice that the tone of this piece throughout is disturbingly…neutral. For instance, it states that bin Laden was “allegedly” behind the September 11 attacks. Here are the first few lines of the piece:

In his death on May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden kept a promise made in a 2006 audio message.

Alluding to the United States’ hunt for him, the al-Qaeda leader stated his determination to avoid capture: “I swear not to die but a free man.”

His death ends the largest manhunt in history that began a decade ago involving thousands of US troops in Afghanistan and tens of thousands of Pakistani soldiers in the rugged mountains along the border.

Whether reviled as a terrorist and mass murderer or hailed as the champion of oppressed Muslims fighting injustice and humiliation, bin Laden changed the course of history.

As for biographical timelines and other graphics, not many have stood out so far, but it’s only Monday. The Associated Press has put together an interactive timeline of both Osama bin Laden’s life and the information-gathering leading up to Sunday’s raid in Pakistan, but it is slightly confusing to navigate. CNN, though, keeps it simple with a very detailed, text-only timeline of bin Laden’s life and the major world events that shaped his ideology, as well as his connections and relationships to world leaders. Here’s an excerpt:

1994 — The Saudi government officially strips bin Laden of his citizenship, freezing all the remaining assets he has in the country. His family disowns him as well.

That same year, Bin Laden is the target of an assassination attempt. Afterward, he strengthens his personal security detail.

In the following months, officials believe he funds and directs a series of attacks, including a failed attempt to kill Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and a 1995 suicide bombing at the Egyptian embassy in Pakistan. Authorities now believe that this marked the early days of a growing alliance between bin Laden and other militant Islamic groups, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and its leader Ayman al- Zawahiri.

Finally, for level of detail and pure skill in storytelling, you can’t get better than the New York Times obituary, posted late Sunday night at a whopping seven (web) pages. Written by Kate Zernike and Michael T. Kaufman—who himself died in January 2010—put together a very comprehensive look at bin Laden’s early life, his changing views, and the magnitude of his impact on world events. Like the Star-Ledger piece, it quotes liberally from interviews with bin Laden himself from the past few decades as he entered America’s consciousness, and it delineates very clearly his shifting allegiances with leaders throughout the Middle East over time. A detailed a piece as it is, it wisely skips over giving an account of the actual events of September 11, focusing instead on what readers might not already know. But it ends on a properly grave note—chilling, even—a sharp contrast from the “USA! USA!”-chanting crowds of Sunday night:

Bin Laden had long eluded the allied forces in pursuit of him, moving, it was said, under cover of night with his wives and children, apparently between mountain caves. Yet he was determined that if he had to die, he, too, would die a martyr’s death.

His greatest hope, he told supporters, was that if he died at the hands of the Americans, the Muslim world would rise up and defeat the nation that had killed him.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner Tags: , , , , , , ,