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BY TOM MITSOFF
Congratulations to Time Magazine for honoring New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on its cover this week. Unquestionably, the mayor deserves the highest praise for shouldering the greatest tragedy in the history of our country and NY, NY with compassion, dedication and crisis management skills that may never be eclipsed.
But Time’s cover should say “Hero of the Year” rather than “Person of the Year.” By its own definition, Time’s annual “Person of the Year” is the person who most affected events for the year, for better or worse. And, as ghastly as it is to acknowledge it, the unquestionable person of the year by that criterion is Osama bin Laden. It is clear that our society was changed forever on September 11, and that the agent of change was the leader of Al-Qaida. He changed the way we look at airline travel. He changed the way we look at our own level of vulnerability. He masterminded an attack which will go down in history for not only its death toll but its evil brilliance. It was so effective that it surprised even him, as we learned in the video recently released by the U.S. government.
Time’s previous people of the year have included Adolf Hitler and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, so there is precedent for bitter enemies of the United States to be judged as the person who most affected events that year.
While few would argue that bin Laden is the individual who truly shaped this past year, there are few who are taking Time Magazine to task for bypassing the native Saudi whose exact whereabouts are still unknown -- as usual. Rarely, if ever, has American popular opinion been as united. When President Bush said bin Laden was “wanted, dead or alive,” the pacifists and human rights advocates who normally would decry such a stance through press conferences and photo ops were scarce. They knew that the nation could not stomach any sort of mercy or favor being shown to bin Laden.
Time Magazine knew the same when it decided to bypass him. Its editors and management correctly concluded that attempting to sell magazines featuring the man who masterminded the murder of over 3,200 people as its person of the year would be folly. They correctly judged that our collective anger is so passionate, we don’t have the ability or will to give bin Laden any sort of recognition other than that as mass murderer and public enemy number one.
Almost everyone’s knee-jerk reaction to hearing that someone has been named a person of the year is that he or she did something worthy of honor. When Bill Clinton was named Time’s person of the year, even in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and fallout, there was enough public support remaining for Clinton that public reaction wasn’t universally negative. Enough of Clinton’s policies were the agents of positive change that Time could make a reasonable argument that he was worthy.
Time correctly judged that would not be the case this time, and also correctly judged that it could not submit a murderer of thousands as its person of the year without permanently damaging the publication’s credibility in the eyes of a focused public. Had Time’s editors tried to argue that bin Laden meets their criteria, they would have been absolutely right, and they would have been the target of scorn and derision from now until the end of time. They made the right call.
This column was written Dec. 24, 2001, and published in several print and web publications across the country.
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