The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist was in San Francisco recently to discuss his new book, “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.” Coll, 49, writes for The New Yorker and runs a think tank called the New America Foundation.
Why did you choose to write about the bin Ladens? I grew up reading and liking books that had titles like “The Rockefellers” and “The Kennedys” that tried to use a single family’s multigenerational story to explain a time and place in America or elsewhere. I wanted to find a vehicle to write in a specific way about change and globalization in Saudi Arabia.
What’s one thing about the bin Laden family that you think most Americans don’t know? One theme is the role of aviation accidents. Osama’s father died in a plane crash in 1967 when Osama was 10 or 11 years old; it was a huge event in the family’s life. So many of the bin Ladens were private pilots, including some of Osama’s sisters, and they grew up in an atmosphere of adventures and also peril associated with aviation.
Do you think people in the United States really want to humanize and read about bin Laden? It’s seven years almost after 9/11, and most Americans understand this is a more complicated subject than it seemed Sept. 12. Nobody wants to explain Osama away or rationalize his violence, but I think humanizing him is a way of trying to deepen your understanding of where he came from.
You write about many places, what do you notice most about San Francisco? San Francisco … has fought through a lot of social and urban issues ahead of the rest of the country. They’re really a leading indicator over time of where the country is going to be.