"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
On Aug. 17, Palestinian cameraman Mazen Dana became the second Reuters journalist to be killed by U.S. soldiers since the start of the Iraq war in March. Dana, who had been filming outside a U.S.-controlled prison in Baghdad following the death of six Iraqis the previous day, was fatally shot through the chest when an American tank crew mistook his camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and opened fire. The American military has called the incident “a terrible mistake” and promised to investigate, but some observers now speculate that the shooting was reckless, at best.
“From the eyewitness accounts, it appears that Dana was fired on without warning,” wrote the Committee to Protect Journalists in an open letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “He was filming in an area where no hostilities were taking place, raising questions about whether U.S. troops acted recklessly in targeting him.”
For Mazen Dana, it would not have been the first time he was targeted by soldiers while filming a war; as a Palestinian reporter covering the intifada in the West Bank town of Hebron for Reuters, he was deliberately shot at by Israeli troops so often that Reuters eventually sent him to Baghdad for what was considered to be a safer assignment. It was a decision that pleased his wife and four children, who remained in Hebron. “Nobody could believe that now he was going to die doing a job somewhere else,” says Canadian journalist Patricia Naylor, who reported and produced a “Frontline/World” documentary in March about Dana and other targeted cameramen in the West Bank.
Coming just five days after the partial release of an investigation into the April 8 shelling by U.S. troops of the journalist-stuffed Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, Dana’s death has sparked new questions on whether U.S. soldiers are also targeting journalists. Five journalists have died due to American fire, accounting for one-third of the journalists killed in the war thus far. Whatever the investigations may have yielded, the lessons learned were not sufficient to prevent Dana’s death.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Naylor spoke with Salon from her home in Toronto about her perception of Dana’s death and the repercussions that might follow.
Let’s talk a little bit about how you knew Mazen Dana and how the “Frontline” documentary came about.
I started doing the documentary because there was a group of [Palestinian] cameramen I’d met in Hebron. Mazen Dana was one, and he started telling me stories about being shot by Israeli soldiers on several occasions, mostly with rubber bullets, and being beaten up. And all of the cameramen in this area started showing me wounds, and they said it wasn’t an accident at the time and I didn’t believe them — I mean, I work every day and I’ve never been shot at. So we sat down and they started showing me videotape that they had collected of various incidents where they were beaten up by settlers or shot by rubber bullets by Israeli soldiers. That was before the intifada [in 2000] — after the start it was no longer rubber bullets, it was live ammunition.
At the beginning of the intifada, Mazen Dana was shot two days in a row — once in his leg and the next day twice in the foot, with exploding bullets, and he was off work for three months, and I came to believe what they said, that they were targeted. Not intentionally, like, “Let’s go shoot a journalist this day,” but if the anger among the soldiers rose I think the journalists seemed to get their anger …
On my last shoot with him, he was by that time only shooting from within buildings because it was too dangerous on the street to film. Which, you know, is amazing for journalists covering the intifada that you’d have to shoot from apartment buildings and whatnot. He was very careful. And he was even shot within the top floor of an apartment building, his camera was shot, and that’s when Reuters finally took him off the street because they said, “You know, if we can’t protect you within an apartment building, we can’t protect you.” His children often wanted him to stop doing his work. They were worried for him because they’d seen him shot so many times, so when Reuters took him off filming anymore in the West Bank and sent him to Baghdad, they thought this would be a safer assignment because he spoke Arabic and spoke English. Nobody could believe that now he was going to die doing a job somewhere else.
Do you see a parallel between what happened in Hebron and Baghdad? There’s such a terrible irony that he was shot by Israeli soldiers but killed by U.S. soldiers, in a situation that was supposed to be safer for him.
Well, I think it’s important the U.S. do a good investigation and honest investigation, and show what a democracy does and that it does protect journalists, and understands journalists are important to tell the story. Because what’s happened in the Middle East is that despite many documented shootings of Palestinian journalists, there’s never been an honest and full investigation.
Nobody’s particularly satisfied with the investigation of this shooting into the Palestine Hotel. There’s no indication of whether or not they ever knew there were journalists inside, which everybody did know; I mean, these things aren’t secret. These things are widely known, journalists stay together, people are savvy when they’re doing war reports.
And Mazen was probably one of the most savvy and experienced war reporters and cameramen in the world.
Right now there are parallels. There is shooting in the West Bank of journalists that is not investigated, and there’s not enough public pressure to make it stop, or make it investigated thoroughly and reprimanded to the point that it stops. And right now we have it happening in Iraq, and from the one investigation we don’t have a credible, solid investigation that sends out the signal, “Make sure you don’t shoot journalists.” Journalists aren’t hiding; we try to be as obvious as we can. We wear press jackets that say “Press” and dress our cars up with big signs that say “TV,” so everyone knows who the journalists are. We always try to talk to the soldiers, and I know Mazen Dana and his sound man had done that the day they were shot, so the soldiers knew who they were. But he was still shot, so it leaves a lot of questions.
His wife has been quoted as saying this was a deliberate shooting.
Well, she’s seen so many deliberate targetings of her husband, so I can imagine she feels like that. And we won’t know.
But having seen a comparison of his camera and what it was confused for, could she be right?
Of course I can’t possibly know that, but I think the possibilities have to be examined, because it’s such a strange and bizarre error to confuse those two things. It was daylight, and soldiers and tanks have excellent binoculars; they can see things in details at enormous distances. And if they were working on a lead from somebody that this person was dangerous, where did that lead come from? Why did they think this was a threat? I haven’t read in anything I’ve seen why they thought this person was a threat. I know they thought he was carrying something, but, you know, I find it hard to believe. I can’t even speculate what happened.
Do you think his being Palestinian had anything to do with it, that it separated him in some way for these soldiers?
No, I don’t. He certainly didn’t look Palestinian, if you passed him on the street in New York, he’s fairly Western in how he looked. Other than maybe there was somebody there who wanted to … I don’t know, it’s hard to know. Possibly they got a bad tip from somebody that was threatening. It’s the only thing I can honestly think of because I can’t imagine how it happened, that there was bad intelligence.
The Pentagon has called this a tragedy and a terrible mistake. Is this shooting an anomaly, or part of a broader pattern of GIs targeting journalists?
I don’t know. I think the protection of journalists is at an all-time low, and what I saw in the Middle East was sickening. And to see it happen with U.S. soldiers … and there are mistakes! This could be a legitimate mistake! But you have to investigate enough that mistakes don’t happen, or rarely happen. Certainly less than we’ve seen.
But mistakes will always be made, right? Why shouldn’t we just accept that in guerrilla warfare-type areas, of course journalists are going to be killed, just as other civilians in the area will be killed, and that they know the risks going in?
I’d have to debunk the idea that there are periods where things are very volatile and journalists know the risks, and most stay away, but others take the risks and they know that they could die — during the early part of the war, that was true.
But when you get to this point in a war, the situation is very different from what you see on TV. Because of the way we show television, it feels like it’s chaos all the time, but it just isn’t. It’s not chaos all the time, you only see the chaos on TV in those short clips, a minute-20 [second] news story.
I’ve shot for hours in the West Bank, and I only shoot when you can be safe.
I think we have a misperception that it’s chaos at all times, and of course they’re going to be shot. And right now in Iraq there’s chaos, but it’s not everywhere. Everybody has to get up in the morning and do their things and try to get food, and it’s a life that’s predictable, so when we go to shoot it, we know what we’re shooting. And so when Mazen went to the prison, he knew it was calm and quiet. He didn’t go in the middle of riots, he wasn’t shot in the middle of riots.
It was a calm day, the U.S. patrolled that area, it’s a U.S. prison, that’s when journalists go in, and to have somebody suddenly start shooting is completely out of the blue. It’s as if you were standing in a field and suddenly got shot at. And way too many times, when journalists are being shot, it isn’t in the middle of war, it’s not in the middle of fighting. It’s actually during a fairly routine, predictable demonstration of some sort, and that’s when the questions really have to be asked — why would somebody then be shot?
The cases that we’re questioning are the ones that were calm.
Which actually makes it all the more ominous and raises the question of how many parallels there might be between what you covered in Hebron and what’s going on in Iraq now. Is this a general thing, do you think, that the military just don’t like reporters?
Well, that’s certainly the case in the Middle East. The Israeli military is not keen on reporters, though most of the time they treat us respectfully and give access to places, and most of the time we’re perfectly safe. But there are occasional times when they’re frustrated or aggravated or what, and it leads to these horrible shootings, but it’s mostly Palestinians that have been shot at.
I would anticipate that U.S. soldiers are not as antagonistic to reporters but I haven’t been to Iraq and I don’t know well enough to say.
But the parallels really are that there hasn’t been a good investigation or sincere answers about what happened in the earlier case [of the Palestine Hotel shooting].
Mazen would often say there has to be more public pressure to get this to stop. He and all the cameramen I knew in the West Bank would say, “Journalists are being shot here and no one seems to care, no one’s doing anything, and maybe the U.S. can investigate it fairly and clearly.” Somebody should be reprimanded or at least take steps that this type of thing doesn’t happen again, and to make sure that people remember that journalists have to be on the scene, and to be on the scene we have to be afforded the protection of the military and the people around us.
How do you think this case will be dealt with?
I suspect almost nothing will happen. Today the U.N. headquarters was bombed, there’s always another story, more people are hurt. And that’s one of the tragedies of these things, that there’s always the next story and it’s easy to get lost. But I really pray that it’s looked into, because it’s so frightening for all journalists. We do everything we can possibly do to be safe, we take every precaution we can, and then to step out of your car and be shot in the chest is unconscionable.
I think, why not shoot a warning shot if there was some confusion? There had to have been some kind of confusion in the mind of whoever pulled the trigger.
Laura McClure is assistant news editor at Salon.More Laura McClure.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)