It's only been a few months since Daniel Pearl, the chief of the Wall Street Journal's South Asia bureau, was kidnapped and murdered by a group of Islamic extremists grandiosely calling themselves the National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty. Even in a world that is sadly no stranger to brutality, the details of Pearl's execution were gruesome beyond belief: After being beaten, he was forced to confess to various crimeschief among them was that he was Jewishand to issue pro forma denunciations of Israel and the United States. Then his captors slit his throat, decapitated him, and dangled his head in front of a video camera. Pearl's murder formed the centerpiece of a video that aired the group's demands to the West.
The murder was met with universal outrage in the Westand censure even in much of the Islamic world. Yet the question of how to respond both to Pearl's murder and to the video recording it, which is available online, has sparked heated debate. Against the objections of Pearl's parents, his pregnant widow, the Journal, and the FBI, CBS news chose to air a portion of the tape. The Boston Phoenix, The New Republic, and my own publication, Reason, not only told readers where they could find the uncensored footage but advised them to have a look. As The New Republic put it, "Why should Americans not see the actual savagery of some of our actual adversaries?"
While the editors of the Journal argued against airing the death video, they nonetheless wanted to make sure that people understood the true import of their slain colleague's life and death. The result is At Home in the World, a collection of some of Pearl's work for the Journal; the anthology also includes reminiscences by colleagues and family, intended in part to articulate the larger sociopolitical meaning of the murder.
That meaning was telegraphed by the Journal's own obituary/editorial for Pearl, wherein the editors announced that "American journalists, like America itself, will not be intimidated." They explained that Pearl's life had been given to "uncovering the facts that would let the world better see the shape of its own dilemmas" and noted that the Islamic world lacks such a free press, rendering it "more vulnerable to propaganda."
The Journal's editors stressed that Pearl had not been just some continent-hopping "thrill seeker" of a journalist. Rather, "Danny," as he was known to his friends and colleagues, had been someone who believed that " by exploring the truth about world events the world will be better able to confront and solve its own problems." Pearl's widow, in an introduction to the book, writes that "the terrorists who killed Danny stood at the center of the other extreme of what Danny represents."
Pearl's stories, which showcase an impressive depth and breadth of knowledge, reinforce the idea that he was dedicated to bringing tough issues to light. They are also playful, researched to the nines, and well written. His journalism sometimes grabs the reader in ways that you could not have anticipated. The first story in the collection, for instance, memorably describes the condition in India after an earthquake in 2001:
It smells. It reeks. You can't imagine the odor of several hundred bodies decaying for five days as search teams picked away slabs of crumbled buildings in this town. Even if you've never smelled it before, the brain knows what it is, and orders you to get away. After a day, the nose gets stuffed up in self-defense. But the brain has registered the scent, and picks it up in innocent places: lip balm, sweet candy, stale breath, an airplane seat.
His forays into the Balkans led him to conclude all kinds of impolitic things: that the Serbs hadn't attempted genocide in Kosovo, that Western attempts to impose a multi-ethnic society will fail, that there are some problems that are tangled and thorny and should be approached with caution. His interests were varied and eclectic and there were plenty of problems that he didn't' pretend to know the answers to.
In a truly bitter irony, one of the most striking aspects of Pearl's work is his obvious sympathy for the Islamic world. For example, while his portraits of Iran evince a Westerner's chuckle at the country's internal squabbles, he clearly saw the nation not as an "axis of evil" but as a religious people grappling with, and evolving to accommodate, the modern world.
Indeed, Danny Pearl's dedication to clear and fair reporting seems to suggest that he would be uncomfortable with attempts to cast his death in the symbolic, sometimes even hagiographic, terms in which it has been rendered. The bedrock convictions that stand out while reading At Home in the World are a deep skepticism about power and about grand claims generally. And a wistful, tragicand perhaps fundamentally utopian hope that the world could somehow be set right, that people could in fact work out their problems without doing tremendous damage to one another.
Jeremy Lott is the 2002 Burton C. Gray Memorial Intern for Reason magazine.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal has today posted an excerpt from At Home in the World.
When Pearl's death was confirmed, The Wall Street Journalofficial statement said, "We will, in coming months, find ways, public and private, to celebrate the great work and good works Danny did. But today is a day to grieve."
Pearl began as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in 1990 and wrote or co-wrote 68 stories for Page One. The paper has posted a collection of some of his most memorable front-page stories.
PBS's Online NewsHour has full coverage of the Pearl kidnapping and murder.
Articles on reaction to Pearl's death include:
Family, friends and colleagues honor memory and work of Daniel PearlThe Philadelphia Inquirer (May 27, 2002)
Slaughter of 'the sweetest guy'BBC (February 22, 2002)
Remembering Daniel PearlNewsweek (February 21, 2002)
Reactions to news of Daniel Pearl's deathCNN (February 21, 2002)
Related articles include:
Parents of slain reporter Daniel Pearl give first interview since son's deathAssociated Press (June 25, 2002)
Baby Born To Daniel Pearl's WidowCBS (May 31, 2002)
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
A Cry for Help | Sudanese Christians gather in Houston and ask for U.S. support. (June 17, 2002)
Agrarians of the World, Unite! | Wendell Berry's vision, and how Christians should respond to it. (June 10, 2002)
Stop, Drop, and Cover | Then hack your lungs out and die. (June 3, 2002)
Death of an Evolutionist | RIP Stephen Jay Gould. (May 31, 2002)
Closing The X-Files | with the sign of the Cross. (May 20, 2002)
And the Next Thing Is | Marxism (or not). (May 13, 2002)
God Bless the Eliminator | Mother Jones magazine makes known a shocking discovery: evangelicals are sending missionaries to Muslim countries! (May 6, 2002)
'A Peculiar People' | The uniqueness of the Jews. (April 29, 2002)
'Nebuchadnezzar My Slave' | Was the Holocaust God's will? (April 15, 2002)
'In the Beginning Was the Holocaust'? | Blasphemy, rage, memory, and meaning of the Shoah. (April 8, 2002)
The Gospel According to Biff | A conversation with novelist Christopher Moore. (April 1, 2002)
Baseball 2002 Preview | Part 2: Saving the game? (March 25, 2002)
The State of the Game | After one of the best World Series ever, baseball faces a crisis. (March 18, 2002)
America's Homegrown Islamand Its Prophet | The strange story of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam and onetime mentor of Malcolm X. (Mar. 11, 2002)
'Must Be Superstition' | Rediscovering spiritual reality. (Mar. 4, 2002)
Science Holds a Meeting | A report from the annual convention of the AAAS. (Feb. 25, 2002)
Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source. (Feb. 18, 2002)