When they want your head: Veteran journalist tells risks of Middle East reporting

 At some point, reporters in the Middle East stopped covering murders and started getting murdered.

Jeffrey Goldberg remembers the turning point in Before the Beheadings, an aptly named article in The Atlantic. Goldberg once enjoyed his dangerous beat, covering terrorism and religious wars in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.  

At least he did, until the danger spread to reporters like himself -- a danger that preceded the killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff this year:

The attacks of 9/11 weren’t the decisive break in the relationship between jihadists and journalists. It was the decision made by a set of extremists in Pakistan to kidnap the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in January 2002 that represented a shift in jihadist thought. To his kidnappers, Pearl was not a messenger to the outside world, but a scapegoat to be sacrificed for the sins of his fellow infidels. Murder was becoming their message.

Goldberg's first-person essay describes the paradoxical sense of danger and safety in reporting on various jihad groups. He writes about interviewing terrorist leaders on willingness to use nuclear bombs if available, and on how one even thought the Jews were "from Satan." But the jihadis gave safe passage to reporters in order to tell their stories via news media.

Goldberg describes one such meeting, with Pakistani terrorist Fazlur Rehman Khalil:

I had glimpsed a treacherous and secret subculture, and I was happy, because a reporter’s deepest need is to see what is on the other side of a closed door. In exchange, I would tell people in the West about Khalil and his beliefs. I was appalled by his message, and I wanted readers to understand the horror of it. But Khalil believed he was doing good works, and he wanted the world to celebrate his philosophy. Back then, the transaction worked for both parties. Today, when I think about the meeting, I shudder.

He relates a fellow journalist's attitude: “I used to tell people that as a reporter for an American news organization, it was like we were wearing armor. “People just didn’t go after American reporters.”

Until, of course, they did -- starting with Daniel Pearl in 2002. At the time, other newsmen thought it was because Pearl was Jewish; after all, he declared himself a Jew on video before his captors cut his throat and beheaded him.

"Non-Jewish reporters, meanwhile, could tell themselves that Danny’s death had more to do with his religion than his profession," Goldberg says. Why he didn't take alarm personally -- as both a Jew and a journalist -- he doesn't say.

What happened? One factor, he says, is that "extremists have become more extreme," noting that the Islamic State is too violent even for Al-Qaida. Another factor is the rise of social media, wiping out the need to tolerate reporters.

"There is no need for a middleman now," Goldberg says. "Journalists have been replaced by YouTube and Twitter. And when there is no need for us, we become targets."

That explanation, however, doesn't account for Nicholas Berg, who was beheaded two years after Pearl. Berg wasn’t a reporter -- he was a freelance communications worker -- but he was an increasingly religious Jew who worked with American Jewish World Service and believed in tikkun olam, repairing the world through good deeds. He also had an Israeli stamp on his passport, a fact not lost on inmates in an Iraqi jail where he was held. The coverage doesn't establish Berg's Jewishness as a factor in his death, but I'd rate it a strong possibility.

Goldberg confesses himself a bit haunted by his advice to young reporters. He once highly recommended Middle Eastern reporting to younger journalists: "save some money, go learn Arabic, be a newspaper stringer, grab for the big stories, and you’ll have an interesting life."

One of those he advised was Steven Sotloff. "I prefer to think that he could not have been dissuaded," Goldberg says understandably.

To me, a subtler horror -- if there's such a thing -- was revealed in this paragraph:

I no longer spend much time with Islamist groups. Today, even places that shouldn’t be dangerous for journalists are dangerous. Whole stretches of Muslim countries are becoming off-limits. This is a minor facet of a much larger calamity, but it has consequences: the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan and Syria and Iraq are not going away; our ability to see these problems, however, is becoming progressively more circumscribed.

That amounts to one of the biggest crimes of the jihadis. They behead a select, tragic few. But they blind the rest of us as much as they can.

The fact that any journalists still try to report from the region -- in spite of the difficulties and outright threats -- testifies to their courage and calls for our gratitude.

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