Yesterday, as tidbits about the death of Osama bin Laden trickled out, one was met with extra disdain: The tale that bin Laden has used one of his wives as a human shield. Fortunately or unfortunately, it's not true.
The story first emerged when Deputy National Security Advisor said in a briefing,
"Thinking about that from a visual perspective, here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield," Brennan said. "I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years."
...Pressed on the issue, Brennan said that it was his understanding that the woman killed was bin Laden's wife and that "she was positioned in a way that indicated that she was being used as a shield."
A White House official later contradicted that, but didn't say hy Brennan had gotten it wrong. He may have been misspoken or misunderstood during a high-pressure time — a different Pentagon official had previously that one woman was used as a human shield "by one of the four military-age males on the compound, was killed; he was firing behind her. Two women, including one with Osama bin Laden, were wounded." And yet another official (anonymity is making this extra hard to parse) told Politico that no woman was used as a human shield at all, but one was killed and another wounded in the crossfire. Also notable: Initial reports that bin Laden was armed and firing when U.S. forces came in have now been contradicted.
In fact, Pakistan has one of his wives and "up to eight" children in custody, according to Reuters' anonymous source from Pakistani intelligence. They were (allegedly) left behind when one of the helicopters the US brought along failed and there was no room for them.
As Jack Shafer notes in Slate, several aspects of the story have changed in the telling, perhaps a combination of human error and gleeful re-hashing of changing government accounts. In the case of Osama's wife, the moment between report and retraction featured a chorus saying this was yet another example of bin Laden's cowardly evil. (At least one high-profile conservative appears to have deleted his tweets to that effect). It wasn't clear if this was because the woman was his wife, because he'd used a non-combatant human shield at all, or because only a wuss hides behind a girl. As if the whole "mass murder from a mansion" thing hadn't convinced anyone?
Update: In a briefing today, the White House corrected its earlier reports and then "said that one of Bin Laden's wives was shot in the leg as she charged members of the commando team on the third floor of the compound."