Thursday, August 04, 2005

Steven Vincent

I can't tell you how saddened and appalled I am, Bush, to hear news of the murder in Basra of Steven Vincent. Coming along with reports of the death of 14 Marines, it brought me to the brink of despair at the dreadful, seemingly endless mess you have created in Iraq. If you remember our Monday conversation, Bush, I quoted--regrettably without mentioning his name--from a piece that Vincent wrote for the op-ed page of Sunday's New York Times about the growing power of the mullahs in Basra, the corruption of a police force dominated by religious fanatics, and the laissez-faire attitude of the British occupiers there. It was a bleak picture, based on Vincent's tireless investigation into the predicament of ordinary Iraqis trying to get on with the business of their lives.

This was the first article I had read of Vincent's, to my knowledge, and I paid scant attention to the author's name. It was only after reading about his death that I checked him out, and discovered that we had one thing at least in common: like me, he was a free-lance writer, and he wrote about art--until the experience of watching the second airplane fly into the World Trade Center in New York persuaded him there were more important things for him to do. The fact that his Sunday article spoke to me so strongly was in part that old "I-wish-I-could-have-written-that" syndrome. I was filled with admiration for the courage of a man dedicated--and foolhardy--enough to write such a piece in the full knowledge that it could get him into very serious trouble.

But there was something about the quality of his writing, too. Call it the ring of truth. It had the kind of transparency and clarity to which I myself aspire. No "literature." No tricks. No adornment. Just straight language, perhaps even a little understated, but used to maximum effect. It was only after I heard about Vincent's murder, though, that I took the trouble to check him out, discovering his web log , In the Red Zone, and some of his online articles. Talk about "fair and balanced," Bush! This was no knee-jerk liberal opponent of your war. In fact, I discovered that he had been an "enthusiastic supporter" of the invasion of Iraq--as I understand it, in the interest of liberating people from tyranny and fanaticism. Unlike most other reporters, he chose to live in Basra for an extended period, at increasing risk to his own safety, in order to understand in greater depth what he had chosen to write about.

The picture of post-invasion Iraq that emerges from his writing--at least from those few articles I have been able to read--is a depressing one indeed. But it's also even-handed. This is no blame-America-first stuff, Bush, you'll be happy to hear. To the contrary, Vincent insistently holds the mirror up to the Iraqis themselves, exposing their blame-America recriminations for what they are: a pretext for refusing any responsibility for their own plight. He writes about the daily experience of ordinary people, based on his conversations with them. He writes about the shortage of electricity, the closing of a hospital emergency clinic because of endemic abuses, the mounting piles of garbage, the "self-defeating behaviors" of Iraqi citizens who find it easier to blame others than take care of themselves. What he paints is not a pretty picture, and its unvarnished truth is likely what led directly to his death.

I think if he and I got involved in a political discussion, Bush, we'd find a good number of points of disagreement, but I don't question the man's integrity or his courage. His writing addresses the realities of the situation over there with unsparing honesty. It's a healthy reminder of the complexity of post-war Iraq, and of the power of conflicting passions and interests there. It's also a much-needed corrective to both the sensationalism of the media and the rosy predictions we get from those who have an interest in protecting you and your policies from criticism.

No comments: