Running Toward Danger
Why the world still needs war correspondents.
The young freelance journalist kidnapped recently in Syria, Austin Tice, joins the long list of reporters who, having taken great risks with their lives and freedom to focus our attention on the travails of distant and very different people, are now paying the price. That list, which includes Mary Colvin, Tim Hetherington, and Daniel Pearl, among many others, had my name on it for seven long years.
Unlike many others, I survived my kidnapping in Beirut in 1985, and the seven years of imprisonment. After I came home in 1991, many people asked me: Why? Why put yourself at such risk? Why ignore the warnings, defy family and friends’ worries, to go watch horrific things happen to people no one here really cares about? People who, for many Americans, are the enemy — "those crazy Muslims, terrorists"?
In a Facebook post several weeks before he disappeared, Tice tried to explain: "No, I don’t have a death wish. I have a life wish," he wrote. "So I am living in a place, at a time, and with people where life means more than anywhere I have ever been, because every single day people here lay down their own for the sake of others. Coming here to Syria is the greatest thing I have ever done, and it is the greatest feeling of my life."
"And look, if you still don’t get it, go read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. That book explains it all better than I ever could."
Both the kidnapping and Tice’s words reverberate in my memory, and in my soul. I well remember — and shall never forget — the fear of being powerless in the hands of those who hate you, the helplessness of being blindfolded and blind, pushed and dragged as Tice was in that video. I also remember the self-doubt, the anger at myself for being careless, for not paying enough attention to my own security — emotions that Tice has undoubtedly felt. Little credit, now, the bravado of that manifesto. Little satisfaction, knowing the pain and helplessness his family is suffering because of his risk-taking.
I hope and pray that Tice is released, as I was. There is a consensus among journalists and intelligence experts that he is actually being held by forces belonging to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is trying to place the blame on anti-government rebels. Discrepancies in the videotape released by his kidnappers cast serious doubt on their claim to be Islamists allied with al Qaeda and similar groups. Even the U.S. government has officially endorsed the deception theory. Anyone who has had dealings with the Syrians in the past 20 or 30 years would consider that not just believable, but likely, especially given the revealing blunders in dress and language in the tape. Assad’s troops are known to be often vicious, but not particularly bright.
Does that make his eventual release more or less likely? I don’t know. I hope that a government has more constraints, more reasons to keep him alive, than a band of fanatics. I hope that Assad and his cohorts do not carry this masquerade too far, though their past targeting and jailing of journalists doesn’t make me optimistic.
I do know that Tice was right in his conviction that what he was doing was important enough to take risks. Many others have taken similar risks, for similar reasons. Many have paid the price. Forty-six journalists have paid the ultimate price so far this year, and nearly 1,000 in the past 20 years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international organization that monitors attacks on the press, and of which I am honorary chairman. Thousands of others have been kidnapped, beaten, jailed, or forced to flee their countries.
One of the most frequent questions I got after my release was this: Was it worth it? Would you do it again? Of course not. Don’t be silly. Nothing is worth getting kidnapped, or killed. And no, I would not go through that again.
But I’m not sorry for taking the chances. It was important to be there, to witness the violence and the horrors that war brings, to tell the stories of people facing terrible things. To explain the world and help let others understand. To find and tell the truth, as best we could, when many were telling lies.
Tice, and all those others who took risks, and had to pay for them, would say the same, I believe.
How could we say this? Which of the stories that Tice wrote, that I wrote, or any of the others, could be worth this kind of price? God knows it is difficult to find anything in my journalistic career that I can point to and say, I helped this person. Or that I contributed to this solution for that problem. Many times, I felt that the world simply ignored my reporting.
And in those years of imprisonment, I thought often about my life, and whether it was worthwhile; whether it had made any difference to anyone.
I grew up believing certain things: That America is a democracy, and in a democracy, freedom of speech and of the press are central to the free flow of information that makes a democracy work. That the proper way to fight wrong is with truth and honesty. That the best disinfectant is sunlight, as the journalistic cliché goes.
Despite the disdain that many express for journalists these days, I learned in my career that most journalists are idealists, that they really believe in what they are doing. And in more than 20 years with the Committee to Protect Journalists, I have met and heard of thousands of journalists around the world who truly believe that you cannot have a free society without a free press. They believe it so strongly they are willing to risk their lives and their freedom every day to find and tell the truth.
I have tried to instill those beliefs in another generation, in more than 10 years of teaching journalism in several of our best universities.
I certainly succeeded with my youngest daughter, Sulome, who works for this publication and is well launched on a journalistic career that has already taken her back to Lebanon. Do I fear for her? Damn right I do. I worried for the entire time she was in Beirut, reporting for the Daily Star. I worry every time she begins interviews and research for the stories on the homeless, and the addicted and the neglected she seems to gravitate to, that have led her to terrible neighborhoods at all hours. (And she’s probably very tired of hearing the lectures on the phone, as I try to pass on decades of hard lessons to keep her from paying the terrible prices this profession can exact.)
But I am proud of her, as I am of Tice — whom I’ve never met — and other young people who understand what this calling is all about.
Forget the whining about Americans who don’t care about news, who don’t know about or understand the world, or want to. It is our job to make them care, to help them understand.
Ernest Hemingway is not much admired these days. He is mocked as a macho chauvinist, with an easily caricatured writing style. But I understand why Tice recommended him. He wrote about character, about honor and truth. That is what we do — find and tell the truth, as best we can. It is often dangerous. It is always important.