True martyrs—unlike the twisted souls who fly jets into buildings or blow themselves up at pizzerias—are inevitably reluctant. Whether it’s Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus or Gandhi, the anonymous Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe or the anonymous Muslims of Kosovo and Bosnia, people want to live their lives, not become symbols.
So I have little doubt what Daniel Pearl would have thought of the Boston Phoenix’s decision to provide a link on its Web site to the propaganda video of his execution and to publish a photo of his severed head being held aloft. He would have been horrified that his last, terrible moments were made so public.
As his father, Judea Pearl, recounted in an eloquent op-ed piece for The New York Times, his son had sent him an e-mail from Pakistan two months before his abduction saying, “It looks pretty dicey from here—at least your papers don’t run front-page photos of the corpses of journalists.” Judea Pearl then wrote: “To preserve the dignity of our champions, we should remove all terrorist-produced murder scenes from our Web sites and agree to suppress such scenes in the future.”
I respectfully disagree. Daniel Pearl didn’t seek martyrdom, but martyrdom found him. The three-and-a-half-minute video shows us the true face of evil, an evil that manifested itself unambiguously last September 11.
Over and over, Pearl is forced to talk about his Jewish heritage while the screen is splashed with scenes of Palestinian suffering. He also talks about the alleged sins of the United States in supporting Israel. He seems relaxed, as though he expects to be released in return for his play-acting. Then, after a quick fadeout, we see Pearl’s apparently dead body lying on a floor as someone hacks off his head with a large knife. Finally, a hand holds up Pearl’s head, and the anti-Israel propaganda continues to roll.
We turn away from such evil at our peril. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote in response to Judea Pearl’s essay, “You will sense the presence of the enemy—an unseen but keenly felt evil. You will appreciate the nature of this war and the enormous cultural gap that leads to the production of a video that sickens us and yet thrills others.”
I had an inadvertent hand in all this. I learned the video was on the Web in late May, when I read a news article about FBI attempts to force a Web site to remove it. It took me fewer than five minutes of searching to find it. Horrified by what I’d seen, I e-mailed the link to a few colleagues, including my former boss, Peter Kadzis, the editor of the Phoenix. He, in turn, passed it along to the publisher, Stephen Mindich—who decided, along with Kadzis, to put the link on the Phoenix’s Web site. “This is the single most gruesome, horrible, despicable, and horrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” Mindich wrote in an online note headlined “Thoughts on Political Pornography,” which accompanied the link. A week later, the Phoenix upped the ante by publishing two small black-and-white photos from the video on its editorial page—one of Pearl talking, the other of his severed head.
My first reaction was that Mindich and Kadzis had made the wrong decision. Yet I slowly changed my mind and wrote about it in a long essay for the Phoenix. I concluded that the reason for publishing the photographs— to witness the evil with which we must contend—outweighed the reasons for not publishing.
Perhaps the most nonsensical argument I encountered was that the Phoenix’s actions had caused pain to Daniel Pearl’s family. For example, the Poynter Institute’s Bob Steele wrote in an online commentary, “Any journalistic purpose in publishing the photos of his death is considerably outweighed by the emotional harm to Pearl’s widow and family. At the least, publishing these photos is insensitive and disrespectful. It may be cruel.” Yet there are few businesses less sensitive to family considerations than the media. News is often about bad things happening to good people, and families frequently object to the way loved ones are portrayed. Just ask any photographer who’s been assigned to cover the funeral of a teenager who died while drinking behind the wheel. Steele—and he was hardly alone—argued for a consideration that we journalists routinely deny to others, and I suspect it was because Pearl was a fellow journalist.
Nor was there anything unusually grotesque about the images when seen in the context of other horrifying news photos, some of them Pulitzer Prizewinners. From the Holocaust to the Vietnam War to the body of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, news photographers have shown us death and destruction in the rawest form imaginable. The fact that the Daniel Pearl video was produced by terrorists rather than journalists is a mere detail. After all, it depicts what happened, which is the most elemental definition of news.
Keep in mind, too, the video was already available, on a Web site that publishes gross-out photos of accidents, autopsies and the like for the viewing pleasure of its perverse audience. The Phoenix did not so much make the video available as it put it in its proper context.
Nearly 60 years ago a Dutch-Jewish dwarf named Alexander Katan was murdered at the Nazi concentration camp of Mauthausen, in Austria, so that a camp physician could display his skeleton. Not much is known about Katan—in part, according to United States Holocaust Memorial Museum historian Patricia Heberer, because his family has wanted as little attention drawn to him and his fate as possible, even going so far as to request that a photo of him stripped naked be removed from Web sites and exhibition halls. A European Web site shows photos of Katan in prison garb and of his skeleton; but family sensitivities prevent us from fully experiencing this unimaginable crime.
I don’t blame the Katans. But there are times when the importance of bearing witness to evil overrides personal considerations. Alexander Katan belongs to the ages. He belongs to us, if we’re capable of understanding what he’s trying to tell us.
So does Daniel Pearl.
Dan Kennedy is a freelance journalist and the former media critic for the Boston Phoenix. He is the winner of the National Press Club’s 2001 Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism. Parts of this article were previously published in the Phoenix.