Danny Pearl Deserved Better

As confirmation of Danny Pearl's gruesome murder hit the news, my friends called.

"That could have been you," one said.

"No," I replied, "it couldn't."

True, I've spent a lot of time traveling through Central Asian backwaters where life is cheap, corruption is rampant and Americans are despised. And the dangers are real enough -- on one trip through war-torn Kashmir Province I dodged Indian shells and Taliban death squads and tiptoed across high-altitude suspension bridges where half the boards had been looted by the locals for firewood -- but breezing through hell on your way back to Istanbul has nothing on being posted there for the long haul.

The scum who slit Pearl's throat for the hottest snuff film in South Asia didn't have to be geniuses to get to him. Pearl had been posted in Karachi for two years. The locals knew who he was, that he worked for The Wall Street Journal. He was very alone in a very bad place.

Many journalists risk similar rolls of the dice. It's inevitable that some come up with snake eyes.

Few countries are more unfriendly to Americans than Pakistan. People hurl rocks at you as you pass by in a taxi. Strangers stride up to you and strike you. And Karachi is the worst city in Pakistan: Bombs go off daily. Buses, cars, markets -- they're all going up in flames. According to the government, nearly half the squalid city's population is addicted to heroin. It's easy to believe: everywhere you go junkies are sprawled across the sidewalk, rusty needles hanging from their thighs.

If Pearl's death served any higher purpose, it was to shine a spotlight on the spectacular dangers that reporters face in a place where everyone carries guns and no one gives a damn if one goes off in your face. Pearl's kidnap-murder was tailor-made for the front page: handsome, likable, married, soon to be a dad, brave wife speaking up for him, his face was dramatically beamed to a million laptops thanks to a cybermilitant using the nom de keyboard "kidnapperguy."

As far as we know, George W. Bush didn't ask Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf to negotiate Pearl's release. That's as it should be; bargaining for hostages only leads to more kidnappings. But for the first time since September 11th, the Bush Administration was forced to pay attention to the death of a reporter.

It was a much different scene three months ago, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld issued an order to American troops in Afghanistan: they were not to give assistance to journalists, period. Even Northern Alliance commanders were advised that they would lose U.S. support if they helped a reporter get out of a tight spot.

The death count for reporters during the conflict is somewhere between 10 and 15; dozens more came home wounded or minus a limb. Western journalists were shot, stabbed, shelled and mutilated by mines. They were raped, robbed, targeted by Talibs and subjected to countless random atrocities. In a land where no one takes Visa or American Express, every reporter was carrying thousands of dollars in cash. And with no police for hundreds of miles, it was open season on unarmed journalists.

"I've done every war you can think of," a Canadian colleague told me in Taloqan in northern Afghanistan. "Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Gulf, Somalia, you name it -- this is the worst by far."

Several times each day, American and Northern Alliance helicopters left Afghanistan for bases in neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to restock ammunition. As Afghan doctors worked under primitive conditions to extract shrapnel from the bodies of dying journalists, fellow reporters begged authorities to airlift them to safety. But the choppers flew out empty. Rumsfeld again: No medevacs for reporters.

If the Bushies had had their way, there wouldn't have been a single reporter covering the Afghan war. They couldn't stop them from going, so they sent a message, chilling and clear: we don't care if you die. In fact, we hope you do.

This attitude, vicious and vile even by the standard of Third World dictatorships, proved contagious, and spread back home to the land of the free. After I reported that Rumsfeld's order had led to the desecration of the body of murdered Swedish cameraman Ulf Stromberg on an unpaved Afghan road, angry readers e-mailed me. "If you're stupid enough to go to Afghanistan," wrote one, "you deserve to die." "Go ahead, croak. Journalists need to stop whining," said another.

What a difference a pregnant widow makes! First it was firefighters and police; thanks to Danny Pearl, war correspondents and journos are joining the swelling ranks of post-9/11 "heroes." But if the Pentagon's unspeakable contempt for the media goes too far, so too does calling those who brave lousy food and lousy people to bring the news to your living room anything else than what they are.

They're human beings -- more often than not underpaid and overworked -- who love the thrill of war and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with uncovering a good story. They don't deserve medals, but they certainly deserve a spot on an empty chopper going back to Tajikistan.

Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back," will be published in April.

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