At this week's Republican presidential debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry talked about the recent video of U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of alleged Taliban fighters in Afghanistan: “Let me tell you what's despicable," he said, "cutting Danny Pearl's head off."
Soon after, a former Wall Street Journal colleague and friend of Danny's, John Harwood, now at The New York Times, sent out a tweet: “As someone who was a friend and colleague of Danny Pearl...Perry's reference to Danny was irrelevant and gross." Wall Street Journal economics editor David Wessel sounded a similar note on Twitter: “Danny Pearl, of blessed memory, would have condemned US soldiers urinating on corpses (esp on camera),” he wrote. It's this kind of timeless loyalty by two stand-up journalists that Pearl engendered in his lifetime.
It's true that using tragedy for political gain may qualify as being in poor taste. But as a friend and former colleague of Danny's myself, I must admit that I, too, watched the video of the Marines and thought of the horrific video the terrorists had shot of Danny's murder. At that moment I thought to myself: You want to see horrible? Watch the video of Danny's death. I know that, in principle, there is no comparative analysis to be done on abuse, horror, or crime. But the truth is that we are engaged in a very ugly war, and the ruthlessness with which Danny was murdered is an expression of the extent to which our enemies will express their brutality. It was so horrible that a guard in the video, holding Danny down, retched and was thrown out of the room. Such brutality does not sanction abuse of the Geneva Conventions or other codes of military justice, but Perry, a man with whom I agree on not much, is right that the Marines' conduct should be discussed in the context of the larger war.
Next week marks the 10th anniversary of the day Danny disappeared. On Jan. 23, 2002, he slipped into a car outside the Village Restaurant in Karachi, setting off for an interview where he thought he was going to meet the facilitator for "shoe bomber" Richard Reid. In the days that followed, Danny was bound, pistol-whipped, and, ultimately, slaughtered with a butcher's knife. He tried to escape once, climbing a boundary wall, his cries of "help" alerting sleeping guards, who then beat him up. Not only was Danny beheaded, but the alleged murderer, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, triumphantly held Danny's head by his hair for the propaganda video. An autopsy report from Pakistani doctors later said that Danny's murderers had cut his body into 10 pieces; the pieces were buried in one spot in the compound where Danny was held, stuffed into three blue shopping bags, and tossed into a hole.
The details are gruesome. A decade ago, before Danny's kidnapping, I was like much of our nation, protected and insulated from the dark side of this world. I lived and saw the same sanitized version of reality that most of us know. Danny and I became friends in the summer of 1993 as young reporters in the Washington, D.C., bureau of The Wall Street Journal, bonding over beach volleyball behind the Lincoln Memorial and wheat beer at Dupont Circle dive bars. Harwood and Wessel worked in the bureau then, too. When I told Danny that, being a "good Muslim girl," I didn't go to my high-school prom, he threw one for me, and I wore an old bridesmaid dress. When I landed in Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks, Danny, who was also reporting from Pakistan, with his wife, Mariane, by his side, sent me a typically good-humored email: "I know there is a war going on and everything. But can I still look for a husband for you?"
On Jan. 21, 2002, Danny sent me a text from the sonogram visit he'd just completed in the capital city, Islamabad, with Mariane, who was five months pregnant. "It's a boy!!!!!" he wrote. The next day, Mariane and he were headed to my house in Karachi; they were planning to stay with me while Danny did his reporting there. I rushed out to buy Mariane a supply of Body Shop bubble bath, because I knew that Mariane, as a French woman, enjoyed her baths, and I wanted my friend and his wife to stay for as long as they could. When Danny and Mariane arrived, we watched bootlegged movies on his laptop. That was the last night of my naiveté about the threat we faced in the world.
The next night, Danny didn't return from his interview. Mariane and I read Danny's emails, and I read one that made my heart sink. It was sent from the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. “Badmashi” means a “goon” in the Urdu and Hindi parlance of the subcontinent. The minute I saw that address the night he disappeared, I knew there was trouble. Still, we could never have known the horrible fate that Danny was to meet: slaughter at the alleged hands of three men, Khaled Sheikh Mohammad and his nephews Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Musaad Aruchi.
The autopsy report chronicled the result of their work. "The dismembered body found in 10 (Ten) pieces is buried in a sandy land but damp soil, in an area 4x2x5 feet (length x width x depth). The cut/amputated parts found overlapping each other." In one bag: "A portion of track suit that includes left sleeve & front portion with a zip, made up of green, black & dark pink coth pieces with white internal lining is present on the left upper limb." His right foot was attached to his leg with a light brown sock still on it. "Nothing could be opined about the oozing of blood from the nose mouth and ears," the report said. It turns my stomach to write these words, but this is "desecration."
Pakistani cops dug up Danny's remains in May 2002, just days before Danny's son, Adam, was born.
While it is unequivocably wrong for U.S. Marines to urinate on dead bodies, are we going to condemn the act as if it's the worst that has happened in war?
As a society, we shouldn't seek moral equivalency, because we are then doomed to live according to the lowest standards of humanity. But we also don't live in a moral vacuum. We don't live in a utopia. We're in a war.
What was done to Danny is an indicator of the kind of war we're in. That is why I was particularly disturbed, as an American Muslim, to see national American Muslim organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Islamic Society of North America fire off press releases of condemnation for the Marines' video. There are so many outrages inside our Muslim community—from honor killings to honor assaults, including the cutting off of the noses and ears of girls and women in Pakistan and Afghanistan—on which these organizations aren't so rabid.
To suggest we violated cultural norms in a way that the people of the region don't do is to give the people of the region a pass. The legacy of the degradation of bodies in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is historical. When the Taliban laid siege to Kabul in 1996, they dragged a former Afghan leader, Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, from a United Nations compound, cut off his penis while he was still alive, stuffed it into his mouth, and hung him from a lamppost to send a message to the community about the new sheriffs in town.
More recently, I've heard this story, too, circulating among U.S. military personnel: The Taliban got hold of a wounded U.S. soldier. Other soldiers watched him captured on drone footage. They couldn't do anything. They watched as the Taliban cut off his penis while he was still alive, shoved it into his mouth, and then executed him.
A Human Rights Watch report on a massacre in Afghanistan, "Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity," chronicles the horror of how the dead have been treated in war in Afghanistan, starting with a man, identified as Faizal Ahmed, who had one of his arms and one of his legs cut off, in addition to his penis, which was put in his mouth.
Says the report, “The first person we found was Faizal Ahmed, an old man. He was decapitated. One of his arms was cut off and one of his legs. And his penis was cut off, and his penis was put in his mouth. Then we collected three other corpses, near Balki's shrine, and four others from the street between the Academy of Social Science and the police academy ... We found one seven-year-old boy, he was decapitated. His head was nearby, it had been cut off, from behind ... We found a woman in the same house, dead. She was holding a copy of the Koran in her arms, embracing it. Then we found the two women who I told you about before, who had been stabbed. We found seven other bodies, in the streets. Men. They had been shot.” The report goes on and on.
For me, the decade that has followed Danny's murder has been one very long meditation on tragedy, trauma, and grief. I threw myself into investigating Danny's murder for a Georgetown University faculty-student investigative reporting project, the Pearl Project, so I could know the faces of every man who was involved in his murder. That meant watching the murder video again and again for clues to the murderers' identities. We published our results last year on the ninth anniversary of Danny's kidnapping, in a report, "The Truth Left Behind."
Ultimately, I learned a lot of things from Danny. Perhaps the most important thing was: try to live with good humor. He certainly did. Once, when he was following on the trail of al Qaeda's use of the Tanzanite-gem industry to finance terrorism, Danny sent me this email from India, which captured his spirit:
“I'm in Jaipur now, following up on possible Osama connections to the Tanzanite trade. I don't know if there's anything to it, but I do know Jaipur is beautiful and our hotel is luxurious, so I'm pretty sure this investigation is going to take many days.”