Osama bin Laden’s death led to controversy in newspaper obituary departments, according to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review entitled “A Tight Deadline, 4,000 Words, Then Ten Years of Waiting.”
In some cases, 10-year-old obits were dusted off with only the first couple paragraphs changed to tell where and how he died. But editors were concerned about their readers’ response to a traditional obituary where no honour was deemed to be bestowed on this man.
Kate Zernike wrote the obituary that appeared in the New York Times. She was interviewed about the then-and-now experience of originally filing it in 2001 and then reading it in the paper last month.
I was drawn in particular to her defence of the obituary–that it is not a place for accolades but rather a template for the telling of history. This is a question I often encounter in my work: how to reveal the truths I’ve uncovered, scars and all, and so drop onto the page some of the complexity in a single life.
Here is Zernike: “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.”
The Guardian newspaper’s Jason Burke and Lawrence Joffe were chosen by the CJR as the exemplar of a fine Bin laden send-off, particularly with its brilliant juxtapositions showing 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.
Fine writing. Fine sentiment. I’m in with good company, these writers.