Don't look away

The brutal video of Daniel Pearl's murder is worth seeing because it reminds us of just how bigoted and deeply evil our enemies really are.

Published June 12, 2002 11:21PM (EDT)

Shortly after watching the video of Daniel Pearl's execution, I pulled out an anthology titled "Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs." There, spread across Page 80 and 81, was the photograph I could still recall nearly 30 years later. It showed a Vietnamese girl running, naked and howling, away from an explosion, her clothes incinerated by napalm. Unsparingly, the photograph shows her bony ribs, her sticklike arms, her gaping mouth, her genitals.

For that picture, an Associated Press photographer named Nick Ut won the Pulitzer Prize for spot news in 1973. Far from being some disengaged voyeur, Ut had been wounded three times in the war and lost a brother to it. And in the United States, his photograph came to symbolize all that was ceaselessly tragic and senselessly destructive about the Vietnam War.

Throughout the pages of "Capture the Moment," in fact, I found many such photographs, all of them deemed worthy of journalism's highest award. There is Edward Adams' photo of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong lieutenant during the Tet Offensive of 1968. There is Greg Marinovich's shot of African National Congress fighters setting afire a spy from the rival Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party.

The two prizewinning photographs from 1994 cumulatively explain why the United States got into and out of the humanitarian intervention in Somalia. The first, taken by Kevin Carter of the New York Times, captures a vulture hunching behind a supine, emaciated child. The second, shot six months later by Paul Watson of the Toronto Star, depicts the body of an American serviceman being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

It would not surprise me if every one of these photographers were widely reviled for being not merely sensationalistic but inhumane. As if to address that very question, "Capture the Moment" explains that Ut took the Vietnamese girl to the hospital and remained in contact with her for many years, that Carter shooed away the vulture and, a few months after winning the Pulitzer, committed suicide, leaving a reader to wonder if it wasn't out of desperation or guilt arising from his own images.

What I kept thinking, all along, is that this is what we, as journalists, do. We intrude. We afflict. We reawaken slumbering anguish. We assault the senses with images worthy of nightmares. And we tell ourselves, not falsely, that we do this out of a belief in the transforming power of knowledge, of what the intellectual historian Anne Douglas called in a different vein "terrible honesty."

The propaganda tape of Daniel Pearl's final words and decapitation deserves to be available on the Internet precisely because it is so shocking, so ghastly, so brutal, so barbaric. Has the Boston Phoenix acted entirely out of moral conscience and journalistic integrity in linking to the video from its Web site, and running still photographs in its print edition, as its publisher Stephen Mindich would have us believe? I doubt it. Three months after Pearl's murder, Mindich's decision smacks of promotional genius as much as First Amendment principle. But what honest journalist, covering a war or catastrophe, can honestly deny the way ambition and social conscience commingle in our souls?

Certainly, Mindich is right in his central thesis. In a way that no article about Pearl's execution or even CBS News' edited, bloodless excerpt of the tape possibly can, the unexpurgated video on the Internet attests to the nature of America's enemy in the war against terror. The most unnerving seconds in the video are not those when a knife is dragged across Pearl's neck or a hand holds aloft his severed head. No, they are those when Pearl, voice shaky, intones the script that reveals the motive.

"I'm a Jewish American," he tells the camera. "I come from a, on my father's side, a family of Zionists. My father's Jewish. My mother's Jewish. I'm Jewish. My family follows Judaism. We've made numerous family visits to Israel. In the town of B'nei Brak in Israel, there's a street called Haim Pearl Street, which is named after my great-grandfather, who was one of the founders." After a few cursory comments about the Guantánamo Bay prisoners, Pearl returns to his captors' dogma about America's "unconditional support of the government of the state of Israel" and its "24 uses of the veto power to justify the massacres of children."

All the while, the screen displays scenes of supposed Palestinian victims of Israel -- infants with head wounds, a sobbing mother, a young man on his funeral bier. There comes the famous footage of a Palestinian boy and his father huddling amid a shootout in Gaza during the early days of the al-Aksa intifada. President Bush is shown shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Almost as an afterthought, bombs explode, presumably from the American campaign in Afghanistan.

To see this film is to have little doubt that Daniel Pearl, while he may have been kidnapped as an American and a journalist, was slain as a Jew. And that recognition, that awful truth, as Mindich argues, has not adequately sunk in. For understandable reasons, Pearl's family and his employers at the Wall Street Journal made little or no mention of Pearl's religion and Israeli heritage while there was still hope for his negotiated release. Before and after Pearl's death, his wife and now widow, Mariane, has repeatedly emphasized his openness, his universalism. The statement released by Pearl's family, after they learned of his death, memorialized him as "a musician, a writer, a story-teller, and a bridge-builder ... a walking sunshine of truth, humor, friendship and compassion."

Who could doubt all that? And who could doubt the distress of Mariane Pearl after CBS aired its video excerpt, when she said, "It is beyond our comprehension that any mother, wife, father or sister should have to relive this horrific tragedy." Rarely have I heard a rationale as loathsome as Mindich's contention that "if Daniel had his choice, he'd want it seen."

I'm sure that when I showed up at the doorstep of a family in Piscataway, N.J., a few mornings before Christmas 1977, knocking on a front door that was decorated like a giant, beribboned gift box, their choice would surely have been not to talk to a reporter about how their teenaged son had been shot to death the night before on his job as a drive-in bank teller. I'm sure the parents of a college student murdered during spring break in Fort Lauderdale felt the same way when I had to call them up on deadline for a comment.

But this is what we do. And just because Daniel Pearl was one of us, and we grieve for him in the way we rarely grieve for all those strangers we write about, is no reason to obscure the hideous truth of his murder. Nobody is being forced to click on that link. Nor is anyone likely to again be passively faced with it the way viewers of CBS News were.

Human nature wants us to forget the horrors we have seen, which is why they revisit us in our sleep, when our defenses are down. Cerebrally, we understand that al-Qaida is a hateful and ruthless foe, and just as cerebrally we want to achieve distance from what that means. Let us not forget, either, that in large parts of the Muslim world it is still assumed that the tape is some American or Israeli forgery, just as it is widely believed that the Mossad attacked the World Trade Center.

But when I look on Nick Ut's photograph today, all the revisionism about the Vietnam War instantly falls away, and I understand anew why it sickened this country. And just as surely, when I hear the quavering in Daniel Pearl's final, forced words and see the residual anguish on his death's head, when I am thrust up against the joyful sadism of his executioners, I know exactly why this war must be fought.

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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