It was easy to lust after the blood of Osama bin Laden and not feel dirty about it. On our side of history, he had been clearly in the wrong. Killing him felt like revenge. And we needed it. But after a decade of wanting closure for September 11, a simple pronouncement that its mastermind had died wasn't enough to satisfy Americans' bloodlust. We wanted details. We wanted pictures. I wanted proof that he really was gone.
I was 13 when the planes hit the Twin Towers, too young to understand what had happened, but old enough to know the world had changed. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time, and my mother worked a couple blocks from the White House. The terror should have been fierce, but it wasn't. It never has been. He never felt real to me. When I heard he had been killed, I just didn't believe it.
For many Americans, the itch to murder bin Laden took root on that September day. But his death wasn't the end of our obsession. It was the beginning of a new chapter. Since he died, authors and filmmakers started producing the canon of Osama bin Laden death literature in earnest. Like an aperitif at the end of dinner, the books about his death have been satisfying. They are proof that he was actually murdered.
Month by month, the canon of bin Laden death literature grows ever larger. Late last year, the books began trickling out and have since turned into a stream. Now there’s a full on torrent. In May 2012, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden—from 9/11 to Abbottabad was released. A few months later, came No Easy Day, a memoir by a Navy SEAL who had been on the raid. Mark Bowden's The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden followed shortly. Two days after the election, SEAL Target Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama bin Laden came out. And in December, yet another book, entitled Killing Geronimo: The Hunt for Osama bin Laden, will be released.
In addition to this steadily growing literary canon, there are two movies. The first, Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden, aired on the National Geographic Channel two days before the 2012 Presidential Election. The second film, Zero Dark Thirty, will be released January 2013.
This doesn't take into account the eBooks and magazine stories and special-for-Kindle, self-published retrospectives of life spent lusting for another man's murder. But there comes a point when each successive work doesn't add anything to the canon. In economics it's called the law of diminishing returns.
If you delve into the canon of bin Laden death literature, be warned: you'll get a lot of words, but not necessarily the satisfaction you need.
Of all those books, you would think that No Easy Day, written by Mark Owen would satisfy your bloodlust. After all, he was a Navy SEAL on the raid in Abottobad, Pakistan, and he did pump a couple rounds into bin Laden's chest. But his memoir trundles along like a Navy SEAL instruction manual, rich with procedural and training logistics, but thin on the gory details we crave.
Contrast that with Bowden's book, released in mid-October, which explores every possible contingency of the raid, just as the politicians and bureaucrats did. His book, enriched by interviews with President Barack Obama and officials on the national security team and in the CIA, details political procedure in spades, describing once-top secret conversations about the operation. But like Owen's book, Bowden's lacks the violence we crave.
One contradiction standouts between the two books: the way in which bin Laden was shot. That's the detail we're all reading these books for, right?
Owen writes that bin Laden was first shot when he stuck his head out of the bedroom door. The SEALs then advanced into the room and shot him in the chest twice finishing the job. This contradicts the White House report, which states that bin Laden stayed in his room, and that when SEALs charged in, the Sheik was still uninjured (and unarmed) and that one of his wives, Amal, ran in front of her husband to protect him. Bowden's book includes the second account.
It's this particular discrepancy between Bowden and Owen's accounts that I found most pleasurable to read. For a brief second, I was entertained, until I realized that I was no more the wiser about what happened that night in Abbottobad than I had been before I read the books.
In the end it seems that the whole category of books is useless, if not tantalizing. To read every Osama bin Laden murder book would be redundant and, frankly, masturbatory. After a while, you're just beating a dead horse.
Which can be fun, if you're darkly obsessed. Like when the videos of Gaddafi being beaten, sodomized, and ultimately, murdered were released. I couldn't get enough. For hours I Googled and searched and trolled Twitter, looking for another angle—and there were many angles—trying to piece together what happened in the dictator's last moments. And I bet you've watched the Daniel Pearl beheading. (If you haven't, don't. Just don't.) Just like the videos of Gaddafi, I wanted to know everything that could have happened to bin Laden. The videos were titillating, and the bin Laden canon had that same potential. But the raid was relatively tame. The mission clean. Pakistan didn't react. There was no real commotion.
Maybe it's not the canon after all, but the fact that it would have been deeply, viscerally satisfying to see bin Laden on trial, or strung up in town square.
To read about the shot that sent a bullet tearing into his eye, about the lead pumping into his chest. It's those details in which I found pleasure—sick, sick pleasure. The type of pleasure you get from reading a Raymond Chandler novel or Agatha Christie mystery. The sick pleasure you derive from watching horror flicks. The horror that makes you think, oh, my life isn't so bad after all. We should be better than that. But we're not.