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Should Pearl’s Editors Have Sent Him There?

by Alexander Cockburn

Daniel Pearl’s dispatches reminded me somewhat of Peter Kann’s in the days when he was the Journal’s most light-heartedly stylish reporter, before assuming the imperial purple and becoming the company’s CEO. It was Kann, back in the late 1970s, who traveled to Afghanistan, reported that the place was a dump covered with flies and that it was hard to understand why any Great Power would want any truck with the place.

Ironically, since his captors charged him with being an agent of the American Empire and of Zionism, Pearl was not afraid to file reports contradicting the claims of the State Department or the Pentagon or even of the mad dogs on the Journal’s editorial pages whose ravings fulfill on a weekly basis the most paranoid expectations of a Muslim fanatic. Just about the time they were killing Pearl, had they paused to buy a copy of the Wall Street Journal, his killers would have found a reprint on the editorial pages of a particularly feverish article from Commentary, in-house periodical of the American Jewish Committee, stating flatly that to be to be opposed to Israel was to be anti-Zionist, and to be anti-Zionist was to be anti-Semitic. It’s the familiar two-step logic of the Israeli lobby: oppose the sale of Apache helicopters to Sharon or the bulldozing of Palestinian homes means you are a co-conspirator in the Holocaust.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote, the day after news of Pearl’s death was confirmed, that it showed “evil” was still stalking the world, “evil” being the current term of art for “awfulness beyond our comprehension”. Now, these editorial writers have spent years writing urgent advisories to whatever US president happens to be in power that the most extreme reactionary forces in Israel must be given unconditional backing. It would take any Islamic fanatic about fifteen minutes in a clips library to demonstrate that if bombs are to be dropped on Palestinians, peace overtures shunned, just settlement rejected, then the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page is on board, full throat.

Why was it left to Pearl’s wife to offer herself to the kidnapers in lieu of her husband. Why did not the WSJ’s editorial page editor, Paul Gigot, proffer himself, or if he had protested that his credentials were not yet sufficiently seasoned since he has only recently plumped his behind into the editorial chair, why not bring Robert Bartley out of retirement, send him to Karachi for discussion of the relationship of editorial writing in the Wall Street Journal to overall moral responsibility for US policies in the Middle East and South Asia?

So if that WSJ editorial writer who invoked “evil” had been honest, he might have written, “it may well be that Danny Pearl was killed because his murderers held him responsible for positions on the Middle East conflict and on Islam oft expressed in these editorial pages. If so, then he died for principles that we honor and will always uphold”, or something of that sort, while simultaneously emphasizing that reporters are not editorial writers and that Pearl bore no responsibility for the editorials.

Might it not have occurred to Pearl’s editors, those who assigned him to South Asia, that the fact that he was an Israeli citizen might have put him in extra peril, given the fact that he was seeking to contact an extremely dangerous crowd of Muslim terrorists in Karachi? . The fact of his citizenship only emerged after his death, in a report, February 24, in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, by Yossi Melman:

“Professor Yehuda Pearl, father of murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, has told Ha’aretz that he fears that making public his son’s Israeli citizenship could adversely affect investigative efforts by Pakistani police to apprehend the killers and track down the murdered reporter’s body. In a telephone conversation from his Los Angeles residence, Professor Pearl expressed regret and anger over the revelation by the Israeli media of his family’s ‘Israeli connection.’ The U.S. media, which was aware of the information, complied with the family’s request not to make it public.” Then Melman concluded with this minor bombshell: “The American media was asked to comply with this request after information was obtained that confirmed reports that the 38-year-old reporter was dead.”

It seems to me almost certain that those Pakistani terrorists would have killed any reporter for a US news organization who had the ill-fortune to seeking an interview at that particular time. Robert Fisk, of the London Independent, has probably written more pieces sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than almost any other mainstream reporter. Yet that didn’t prevent him from nearly being beaten to death by Afghans in a frontier town a few weeks ago.

On February 23, Fisk wrote: “In Pakistan and Afghanistan, we can be seen as Kaffirs, as unbelievers. Our faces, our hair, even our spectacles, mark us out as Westerners. The Muslim cleric who wished to talk to me in an Afghan refugee village outside Peshawar last October was stopped by a man who pointed at me and asked: “Why are you taking this Kaffir into our mosque?” Weeks later, a crowd of Afghan refugees, grief-stricken at the slaughter of their relatives in a US B-52 bomber air raid, tried to kill me because they thought I was an American. .. Over the past quarter century I have witnessed the slow, painful, dangerous erosion of respect for our work. We used to risk our lives in wars – we still do – but journalists were rarely deliberate targets. We were impartial witnesses to conflict, often the only witnesses, the first writers of history. Even the nastiest militias understood this. “Protect him, look after him, he is a journalist,” I recall a Palestinian guerrilla ordering his men when I entered the burning Lebanese town of Bhamdoun in 1983.”

After discussing the trend whereby journalists clamber into uniforms (as US correspondents did in Vietnam,) Fisk continues:

“When the Palestinians evacuated Beirut in 1982, I noticed that several French reporters were wearing Palestiniankuffiah scarves. Israeli reporters turned up in occupied southern Lebanon with pistols. Then in the 1991 Gulf war, American and British television reporters started dressing up in military costumes, appearing on screen–complete with helmets and military camouflage fatigues–as if they were members of the 82nd Airborne or the Hussars. One American journalist even arrived in boots camouflaged with painted leaves although a glance at any desert suggests that this would not have served much purpose. In the Kurdish flight into the mountains of northern Iraq more reporters could be found wearing Kurdish clothes. In Pakistan and Afghanistan last year, the same phenomenon occurred, Reporters in Peshawar could be seen wearing Pushtun hats. Why? No one could ever supply me with an explanation. What on earth was CNN’s Walter Rodgers doing in US Marine costume at the American camp outside Kandahar? Mercifully, someone told him to take it off after his first broadcast. Then Geraldo Rivera of Fox News arrived in Jalalabad with a gun. He fully intended, he said, to kill Osama bin Laden. It was the last straw. The reporter had now become combatant.

“Perhaps we no longer care about our profession. Maybe we’re all to quick to demean our own jobs, to sneer at each other, to adopt the ridiculous title of “hacks” when we should regard the job as foreign correspondent as a decent, honourable profession… Can we do better? I think so. It’s not that reporters in military costume ? Rodgers in his silly Marine helmet, Rivera clowning around with a gun, or even me in my gas cape a decade ago–helped to kill Daniel Pearl. He was murdered by vicious men. But we are all of us–dressing up in combatant’s clothes or adopting the national dress of people–helping to erode the shield of neutrality and decency which saved our lives in the past. If we don’t stop now, how can we protest when next our colleagues are seized by ruthless men who claim we are spies?”

Pearl’s style was totally alien to the bloodthirsty rantings of his editorial colleagues. He sent excellent dispatches questioning the claims of the Clinton administration that it had been justified in the 1998 destruction via cruise missile of the El Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries plant in the Sudan. Again, he and fellow WSJ reporter Robert Block entered some effective reservations about allegations of Serbian genocide in Kosovo. In fact Slobodan Milosevic might make use of them in mounting his vigorous defense in the US-sponsored kangaroo court in the Hague against charges of genocide. Pearl and Block stigmatized the Serb armed forces as having done “heinous things”, while also writing that “other allegations-indiscriminate mass murder, rape camps, crematoriums, mutilation of the dead-haven’t been borne out in the six months since NATO troops entered Kosovo. Ethnic-Albanian militants, humanitarian organizations, NATO and the news media fed off each other to give genocide rumors credibility. Now, a different picture is emerging.”

The killing of Pearl was just as monstrous as the September 11 onslaughts that killed 3,000 innocent people who bore no responsibility for the actions of their government. But as David North, of the Trotskyist Fourth International wrote on the World Socialist website on February 23: “On the very day that Pearl’s murder was confirmed, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted that US troops had mistakenly killed 16 anti-Taliban Afghan fighters, but refused to apologize. It does not require exceptional political insight to realize that in the decision to murder Pearl, the desire for revenge was a major subjective factor.”

North then remarked that the outlook of the Pakistani terrorists is not so different from that of that Thomas Friedman, the repellent columnist of the New York Times, also recently recruited as a kind o Kuralt of globalization by PBS’s Lehrer News Hour. North cited a recent Friedman column which praised Bush’s Axis of Evil speech in these terms: “Sept. 11 happened because America lost its deterrent capability. We lost it because for 20 years we never retaliated against, or brought to justice, those who murdered Americans …innocent Americans were killed and we did nothing. So our enemies took us less and less seriously and became more and more emboldened… America’s enemies smelled weakness all over us, and we paid a huge price for that.” North very properly comments: “By changing only a few words, the Pakistani terrorists could use Friedman’s argument to justify their murder of Pearl: “We have failed to retaliate against America … innocent Arabs, Afghans and Moslems were killed and we did nothing … America took us less and less seriously and became more and more emboldened.” The thought patterns of the pompous and belligerent American columnist and the Islamic terrorist have far more in common than either imagine. Both think in terms of ethnic, religious and national stereotypes. Both believe in and are mesmerized by violence.”

Leave the last beautiful, true words to Daniel Pearl’s widow: “Revenge would be easy, but it is far more valuable in my opinion to address this problem of terrorism with enough honesty to question our own responsibility as nations and as individuals for the rise of terrorism. My own courage arises from two facts. One is that throughout this ordeal I have been surrounded by people of amazing value. This helps me trust that humanism ultimately will prevail.

“My other hope now — in my seventh month of pregnancy — is that I will be able to tell our son that his father carried the flag to end terrorism, raising an unprecedented demand among people from all countries not for revenge but for the values we all share: love, compassion, friendship and citizenship far transcending the so-called clash of civilizations.”

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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