Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Journalist Murdered In Basra

American freelance Steven Vincent and his female Iraqi translator, Nour Weidi, were snatched at gunpoint as they left a currency exchange shop in Basra by five gunmen in a police car. They pumped four rounds into each of them and dumped them on the road south of town. Steven died. Nour survived, so far. They shot Vincent once in the head and the rest in his body.

Vincent was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Harper's, The Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times. He was also the author of a book about Iraq after Saddam's departure, "In the Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq." He had reported that the police in Basra were heavily infiltrated by extremist Shiite political groups and had formed death squads to assassinate former Baathist officials. The assassins rode around town in a white Toyota Mark II. They may be the ones who killed Vincent.

Vincent was inspired to cover Iraq after witnessing the second jet hit the World Trade Center on Sep 11, 2001. He went solo. He was quizzed about his approach to covering the Iraqi war zone in an interview with FrontPage:

FP: You went to Iraq in the fall of 2003, and the winter and spring of 2004, traveling on your own, with no bodyguards or security of any kind. Are you courageous, noble or crazy? Or a bit of all three?

Vincent: I’ll defer notions of courage and nobility to our soldiers in Iraq—as for being crazy, that’s what my friends thought. But in truth, I managed to stay safe by slipping below the radar screen, so to speak, blending in with the Iraqi people, sometimes disguising myself, keeping as low-profile as presence as possible. Nowadays, I’m afraid that even that incognito approach would prove impossible, with terrorists paying criminals to find and kidnap foreigners.

Vincent maintained a blog of his travels in Iraq. Here is an excerpt from one of his last columns, where he introduces his Iraqi translator, Layla, who is reflexively anti-American, to a US Air Force captain who worked as a contracting officer, earnestly trying his best to do good in a hopelessly corrupt Basra:

I bought everyone a round of orange juice, and we set to talking. In his mid-to-late thirties, prematurely balding, the Captain told us he was born in North Carolina, and currently lived in Ohio with his wife and two kids. ("That's the hardest part about being out here," he told us, "being away from my family.") He'd been in Basra about a month, during which time he'd awarded some $19 million in contracts, ranging from a few hundred bucks for printers, to a million-dollar police station renovation project. He operated on his own, he said, relying on common sense and past job performance records to select Iraqi contractors. He did not use a translator--one reason he asked for Iraqis to complete their bidding forms in English.

This last point was important. Layla and I have heard numerous stories about how, on big multi-million dollar projects, Iraqi translators and engineers--which the Americans, British and non-Iraqi NGOs are forced to use because of language difficulties--often accept bribes from companies to steer contract their way. Since most Westerners don't know Arabic, and must rely on the translators and engineers as their eyes and ears, the funding sources are rarely the wiser. "In my case," said the Captain, "there's just me, my database and Iraqi companies. No chance for corruption there."

I'd wanted to introduce Layla to the Gary Cooper side of America, and I felt I'd succeeded. Instead of the evasive, over-subtle, windy Iraqi, fond of theory and abstraction, here was a to-the-point Yank, rolling up his sleeves with a can-do spirit of fair play and doing good. "I want to have a positive effect on this country's future," the Captain averred. "For example, whenever I learn of a contracting firm run by women, I put it at the top of my list for businesses I want to consider for future projects." I felt proud of my countryman; you couldn't ask for a more sincere guy.

Layla, however, flashed a tight, cynical smile. "How do you know," she began, "that the religious parties haven't put a woman's name on a company letterhead to win a bid? Maybe you are just funneling money to extremists posing as contractors." Pause. The Captain looked confused. "Religious parties? Extremists?"

Oh boy. Maa salaama Gary Cooper, as Layla and I gave our man a quick tutorial about the militant Shiites who have transformed once free-wheeling Basra into something resembling Savonarola's Florence. The Captain seemed taken aback, having, as most Westerners--especially the troops stationed here--little idea of what goes on in the city. "I'll have to take this into consideration..." scratching his head, "I certainly hope none of these contracts are going to the wrong people." Not for the first time, I felt I was living in a Graham Greene novel, this about about a U.S. soldier--call it The Naive American--who finds what works so well in Power Point presentations has unpredictable results when applied to realities of Iraq. Or is that the story of our whole attempt to liberate this nation?

Collecting himself, "But should we really get involved in choosing one political group over another?" the Captain countered. "I mean, I've always believed that we shouldn't project American values onto other cultures--that we should let them be. Who is to say we are right and they are wrong?"

And there it was, the familiar Cultural-Values-Are-Relative argument, surprising though it was to hear it from a military man. But that, too, I realized, was part of American Naiveté: the belief, evidently filtering down from ivy-league academia to Main Street, U.S.A., that our values are no better (and usually worse) than those of foreign nations; that we have no right to judge "the Other;" and that imposing our way of life on the world is the sure path to the bleak morality of Empire (cue the Darth Vader theme).

But Layla would have none of it. "No, believe me!" she exclaimed, sitting forward on her stool. "These religious parties are wrong! Look at them, their corruption, their incompetence, their stupidity! Look at the way they treat women! How can you say you cannot judge them? Why shouldn't your apply your own cultural values?"

It was a moment I wish every muddle-headed college kid and Western-civilization-hating leftist could have witnessed: an Air Force Captain quoting chapter and verse from the new American Gospel of Multiculturalism, only to have a flesh and blood representative of "the Other" declare that he was incorrect, that discriminations and judgment between cultures are possible--necessary--especially when it comes to the absolutely unacceptable way Middle Eastern Arabs treat women. And though Layla would not have pushed the point this far, I couldn't resist. "You know, Captain," I said, "sometimes American values are just--better."

Steven Vincent, you did your best to tell the truth and you got killed for it. Your voice will be sorely missed. Who will have the guts and honesty to step up in your place?

Hat tip to Instapundit

UPDATE: Vincent's last column.


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