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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Hiding in plain sight? So was The Purloined Letter

It seems intuitively unlikely, as so many have pointed out, that Osama bin Laden could have been hiding out in a large, obvious compound in a wealthy suburb less than a mile from a military academy without Pakistani authorities--or at least Pakistani intelligence officials--knowing about it.

Many would be more convinced of Pakistani government claims of ignorance if OBL had been hiding in a cave, as some imagined.

But I'm reminded of the great Edgar Allan Poe story "The Purloined Letter," one of his Auguste Dupin detective pieces (the others include the gruesome "The Murders in the Rue Morgue.") You can read "The Purloined Letter" online here. I won't entirely spoil the plot, but basically a letter has been stolen and the bumbling police can't find it despite a careful search of the premises of the main suspect; Dupin shows them that the letter was hiding in plain sight.

So imagine that OBL got tired of living in caves, and that he wanted to be near civilization, live with his family, and have something approaching a normal life (which, given his Islamic fundamentalist asceticism, did not require him to go dancing or to the cinema.) Where better to hide than in plain sight?

I am not saying this is what happened, I am just saying that it could have happened this way, and what seems logical to conventional minds is not always the truth. After all, U.S. intelligence agencies, with all their satellite technology and human assets, took several years to track OBL down. Was it an intelligence failure, or just a failure of the imagination?

Update: Now that I've written this, I Googled to see if anyone else had made this connection. A number of people have, which I find heartening for two reasons: 1) Not everyone follows conventional reasoning, and 2) American literary traditions are still alive.

Photo: William S. Niederkorn, Berg Collection, New York Public Library

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