In 1990, Tim O’Brien published The Things They Carried, a collection of stories about the Vietnam War. The first story, which gives the book its title, lists unemotionally, but powerfully, the things a small group of American soldiers carried with them into battle.
More recently, when a squad of Navy Seals killed Osama Bin Laden in his Pakistan lair, they gathered up vital materials that are giving insight into Bin Laden’s thinking and planning. In so brief and fraught a period, they could not survey or appropriate everything that might be of interest to American intelligence. They had to leave much behind.
That’s when the Agency contacted me and asked if I would hop a flight to Islamabad and catalogue the entire contents of Bin Laden’s compound, which I have done. I cannot, of course, reveal what I found. However, secrecy requirements do not extend to what I did not find.
That list is infinite, especially since he, and all his wives and children, were strictly limited to two carry-on items for the ride from Tora Bora to Abbotabad: one they could fit under the camel saddle and one they could carry on their heads.
So, a comprehensive rundown of the things Bin Laden did not carry is impossible. But consideration of some key missing items might give us insight into Osama, the person, just as O’Brien’s story takes us into the lives and psyches of American GIs.
Some Things He Didn’t Carry:
A stuffed, mounted moose head: We can infer that he had not visited Canada, Northern Maine, Minnesota, or certain parts of the Rockies. To have done so and not to have shot a moose, or at least bought a stuffed moose head, is unthinkable.
A Grandma Moses Christmas card: This is a bit more problematic. Like Grandma Moses, Bin Laden looked back to a simpler, more “genuine” Golden Age. Yes, he was religiously opposed to the pictorial representation of the human form and, yes, he hated Christians and Jews more than poisonous snakes. But couldn’t a bit of Grandma Moses have shown him that nostalgia needn’t mean dead bodies all over the place? An opportunity lost.
In-line skates: This is the strongest evidence yet that he was feeling the effects of advanced age. This is not the agile, take-your-turban-off-and-let-your-hair-down Bin Laden we knew and loved in his Afghan caves period. He probably left his skates in Tora Bora.
A 1960 Edsel: The absence of one of the most iconic cars of the last half-century is strong proof that Osama was not a collector. Not only that, there was absolutely nothing to indicate he had any hobby of any kind. Not healthy.
A Super Soaker squirt gun: With all those kids in such constricted quarters, what better way to spend quality time with them. Was he really the loving father some claim?
A packet of zinnia seeds: The compound certainly needed some brightening-up. And gardening might have diverted him, at least temporarily, from his obsession with murder. But, no, Bin Laden opted for zinnia-free austerity and violence.
A map of North Dakota: An indication that this state ranked low in his list of terror priorities. Not surprising — maximum effort for minimum body-count.
A ticket stub from a Rangers-Devils hockey game: Another case of “just as well.” Who knows what new angles on violence he might have picked up or whether he might have taken “kill the ref” literally.
A copy of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral: This story of filial betrayal, loss, and general despair might have undermined BL’s mental state. Along with a liberal dose of Joyce Carol Oates, this might have sent him to the medicine cabinet for a straight razor or a few dozen sleeping pills. Yet another opportunity lost.
An NRA membership application: This gap is hard to explain. Of course, the NRA is not dedicated to violence … but, how could Bin Laden have missed the chance to wrap his devious plans in the mantle of respectability and Second Amendment rights? An AK-47 in the hands of every American … Maybe he felt that would unfairly deprive him of his life’s work. We’ll never know.
What can we say about all this? Pretty thin gruel but let me suggest a few themes: Osama was not a fun guy. Fun guys have moose heads and go to Rangers-Devils games. He may have loved his kids, but what Dad who really loves his kids doesn’t play Super Soaker with them? He was sentimental, but his was the harsh sentimentality of stoning and purdah, not the fond recollection of apple pies on back window-sills and sleigh bells in the snow.
Severe, single-minded, harsh. Not a good combination. And what clinches it for me is the “no hobby” thing. A guy without a hobby is going to cause trouble as sure as you’re born. As Attila the Hun lamented on his death bed, “What good is conquering the civilized world if it doesn’t give you time to fly a model airplane?” It’s probably just as well Osama sleeps with the fishes. He might have become a real trouble-maker.