The War Against Journalists

It has been a sad week for foreign correspondence, what with the deaths of Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin.  Shadid, 43, died last Thursday from an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria for the New York Times. Of Lebanese-American descent, Shadid spent most of his career covering the Middle East for the Associated Press, Boston Globe, Washington Post and the Times. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for his reportage while working for the Post; the Times had nominated him, along with others, for the 2012 Pulitzer in international reporting. In the citation that accompanied the nomination, the Times wrote: “Steeped in Arab political history but also in its culture, Shadid recognized early on that along with the despots, old habits of fear, passivity and despair were being toppled. He brought a poet’s voice, a deep empathy for the ordinary person and an unmatched authority to his passionate dispatches.”

And then Wednesday came news of Marie Colvin’s death, along with photojournalist Remi Ochlik, in Homs, Syria. The two died when their makeshift media center came under the relentless, brutal  shelling by the Syrian government that has killed thousands of unarmed civilians. Colvin, 56, was the consummate war correspondent, having covered conflicts in Iraq, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Kosovo, Chechnya, Zimbabwe, as well as the uprisings in the Arab world in the past year. She wore, quite literally, a constant reminder of the dangers that foreign correspondents face: a black patch over her left eye, which she lost to shrapnel more than a decade ago while covering the war in Sri Lanka between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Clearly, the death of three Western journalists cannot compare with the wholesale slaughter–and this isn’t hyperbole–by the Syrian government of its citizens. But the point is that the three chose to be there. As such, they represented the best of the profession, an unwavering commitment to bear witness regardless of the risks. It is not an easy thing. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that the number of reporters killed in the last ten years has jumped 30%, compared with the previous decade. Part of this can be explained by the fact that most armed conflicts nowadays are civil wars in developing countries: undisciplined armies battling even more undisciplined insurgents. And the danger to those covering the conflicts is certain only to rise. Colvin herself recognized the risks in a speech she gave in 2010, honoring the work of journalists and photographers who died in the line of duty. “It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, ” she said, “because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target.” How ironic her words now seem.

Beyond the obvious physical dangers, there are enormous psychological tolls as well. You always feel a bit dirty–for lack of a better word–parachuting into a war zone to be with the besieged. You live among them for a while: dodging bullets,  sharing the constant fear of death, experiencing the same deprivations of food and water. They open up their hearts to you–and then you leave. You pull out your American (or British or French or German) passport and go back to a place where no one is shooting at you, where the water runs clear and cool from taps, where grocery stores stock thirty-six different brands of cereal. You can’t help but feel relieved. But guilty, too. It’s one of the things that keeps you going back, again and again.

It can make you a little crazy, having one foot in the world of thirty-six types of cereal, the other in places where small children are blown apart by grenades. It makes for journalists who become drunks or action junkies or cut-rate hacks. But it also makes for truly heroic reporters like Shadid and Colvin, reporters driven to tell the world things most people would prefer not to know.

Obviously, every time something like this happens, it strikes a very personal chord. I cannot help but relive the death of my first husband, Dial Torgerson, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, who was killed in 1983 while covering the wars in Central Amercia. I remember at the time wondering whether it was all worth it. We had only been married for ten months; we had a lifetime of togetherness ahead of us. Over the years, I’ve been sustained by the belief that Dial wouldn’t have wanted his life any other way. Surely he would have preferred to live, but the security of playing it safe, of confining himself to some newsroom would, for him–as for Shadid and Colvin–have been no life at all.