Steven Vincent, RIP
The murdered journalist's work transcends ideology
Early on Tuesday—the same day he would later be abducted and killed—I was thinking a lot about Steven Vincent, who bears the horrible honor of being "the first American reporter to be attacked and killed in the current Iraq war" according to The New York Times. Other journalists, noted the Times, had died in accidents or from other causes, but none had yet faced Steven's awful fate: His corpse, riddled with bullets and bound by plastic wire, was found on Wednesday morning. His translator, also kidnapped, was shot but not killed.
Who could have guessed such grim events were about to unfold? I was thinking about Steven for self-interested reasons: I was in a periodic low-grade panic about filling future issues of Reason—a semi-regular occurrence that sends me scurrying through back issues and across the 'Net for real and potential contributors to our print and Web pages. Steven had contributed several noteworthy pieces to Reason over the past couple of years—including one based on his first trip to Iraq (material that later ended up in his impressive book In the Red Zone) and two features that drew on his keen interest in and deep knowledge of art and archeology, and the arcane laws governing such markets. I found myself reading deep into his blog about his adventures in Iraq, also called In the Red Zone.
He was great to work with. His story pitches were clean, crisp, and to the point. He hit his deadlines without fail. His reporting was impeccable and infused with sounds, sights, and smells. Unlike many journalists, he actually spent much of his time—in retrospect, perhaps too much of his time—out and about, beyond the comforts and protection of an office or an apartment. He was fantastically well-traveled, especially to places on the busted seams of history—places like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Hong Kong on the eve of its annexation by China. "Steven Vincent believes in plunging headfirst into history," reads the beginning of his entry in one of our contributors' pages. That belief made his work richer and his thought more nuanced. Hence, in "Faith, Shame, and Insurgency: Life in Occupied Iraq," his April 2004 piece for Reason, he keyed into a little-appreciated but hugely important dynamic at work in post-Saddam Iraq, writing,
This is one of the most sensitive parts of the nation's psyche, one that may prove the most problematic. On some level, many, if not most, Iraqis are ashamed that Saddam Hussein brutalized them—and even more ashamed that it took foreign troops to end his reign….
"I hate Saddam! I hate Americans! I hate Iraqis—and I hate myself! I need a Valium!" cried one woman at the Hewar Gallery. It was, I thought, an apt summation of the mentality shared by many Iraqis today.
The only trouble I ever had in working with him was that it could be difficult to finalize revisions and final cuts, especially when he was trotting around war zones like Iraq. As is typical in journalism these days, my relationship with him played out almost entirely via email and occasional phone calls. We had our only face-to-face meeting last fall in Greenwich Village, when he attended a book reading and bar party for Choice: The Best of Reason and This Is Burning Man. He was dressed like an international man of intrigue, more like a spy than a journalist—long trench coat or duster, long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, stylish mustache and goatee. He was carrying an umbrella that seemed like a cane. When he introduced himself, I thought of the demonic Robert DeNiro character in the movie Angel Heart. There was some sort of intriguing yet comforting darkness about him—you could tell instantly that here was a man who had seen firsthand the hopes and horrors of human struggle—that he dispelled by smiling and laughing often. He had lived in a squat in lower Manhattan when he first moved here, he told me, and he "knew way too much about the New York art scene." He talked about being in the East Village and seeing the planes actually hit the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. When he left the bar that evening, he told me he owed me a drink.
He was, in short, the sort of pro you want to work with more often, no matter how often you do. And just a few days before the day he would be killed, he had published a disturbing piece in Sunday's Times about the rotten situation in Basra, a city policed by British troops but effectively run by militia loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr and other Shia extremists. Yes, he wrote, the Brits are dutifully teaching locals how to become policemen and enforcers of order. All the better to speed up the eventual exit of foreign troops and a true transfer of power to Iraqis themselves. The trouble—and it was big trouble—was that up to 75 percent of the recruits were loyal to religious parties that had little interest in establishing anything like democracy and the rule of law.
Although he was an unapologetic and ardent supporter of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, he was never an uncritical one. His reporting transcended ideology, which is no small feat. In reality, that's a goddamned lonely place to be, out there way beyond the easy comfort of ideological certitude. It's a place bereft not of hope but of delusion, which is one of the reasons most of us filter the world, especially its darkest corners, through a soft-focus ideological lens. It lets us obscure and ignore all that we don't want to face. Steven's work didn't do that. He had in his mind, doubtless, a vision of the world, and of the Iraq, that he wanted to see become reality, but it didn't keep him from reporting on the misshapen horrors unfolding now in Baghdad, Basra, and beyond.
In a passage that now seems eerily prescient of his own murder, Steven even wrote in the Times of the police death squads who almost certainly did him in:
An Iraqi police lieutenant, who for obvious reasons asked to remain anonymous, confirmed to me the widespread rumors that a few police officers are perpetrating many of the hundreds of assassinations—mostly of former Baath Party members—that take place in Basra each month. He told me that there is even a sort of "death car": a white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment.
Was he killed because of the Times piece, which brought an ugly fact about occupied Iraq to a vast audience? Or was he killed for his collected writings on Iraq (many of which appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and National Review)? Given his reputation and high profile in Basra, it's virtually impossible that his was a random murder. He never failed to point out the burgeoning thugocracy, especially among the Shia, and the demeaned role of women in Iraq. He was critical of Islam as a social force and he wasn't shy about questioning its gender roles and some of its practitioners' romance of violence. Such relentlessness couldn't have endeared him to his enemies; his willingness to travel without protection made him an easy target. If we'll never know exactly who killed him and why, this much is absolutely certain: One of the most interesting Western voices about Iraq—in Iraq—has been silenced.
And one of the most interesting voices about art, too. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, Steven had been primarily an art journalist (go here for a listing of some of his art criticism). Beyond memorable observations about individual artists (of Jason Fox, he observed, "The results are paintings whose cartoony flatness and limited palette seem the tools of a frustrated prophet with great revelations to bring to mankind—if only his parents hadn't grounded him for the weekend"), he had a strong understanding of the deeper structure of art and its markets. His April 2005 Reason story about the antiquities trade is a case in point. More amazingly, Steven detailed his own conversion from a staunch foe of the trade to a defender of it. How many journalists are willing to openly acknowledge—and fully explain—their changes of opinion? Whatever that small number was, it's down one, now and forever.
Journalism is a profession covered in self-congratulatory myths the way a barnyard is covered in stinking horseshit. It's easy to slip into routinized obituaries, especially about good people who die—are murdered—in the ugliest of circumstances by the ugliest of people. The impulse is to acknowledge the victims' sacrifices and their talents, invoke the righteousness of their lives and your anger, bow your head, wipe away the tear forming in your eye, and then get on with your day. That's a noble gesture—and a necessary one. It allows us to process grief, and if we didn't do that, we'd all be puddles of tears all the time.
But when I think about the murder of Steven Vincent—when I think about those last grim hours he spent in captivity, waiting for the inevitable bullet to his body or the blade to his throat—it's hard to wipe away the tear. His death gives us reason to linger at the gravesite and puzzle over many things. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to know Steven, however briefly and however barely—and, more important, to have published some of his material. He was that rarest of a breed in a profession that supposedly reveres shoe-leather reporting and a dogged pursuit of the truth, no matter where it leads. Unlike most of us, he used reporting to challenge his own beliefs rather than set them in concrete. As he wrote at the start of "Faith, Shame, and Insurgency":
I'd come to Iraq to test my beliefs. Back in New York, I'd been a firm and vocal backer of the war, though not necessarily of the Bush administration. After witnessing firsthand the horrific events of 9/11, I felt the civilized nations of the world had to take on terrorism at its roots—roots that included the Middle East's legacy of poverty, hopelessness, and despotism, epitomized by, among other tyrants, Saddam Hussein. Saddam may or may not have contributed to the murder of 3,000 people in downtown Manhattan, but I believed a free and prosperous Iraq, spreading ripples of democracy and the rule of law from Damascus to Riyadh, was a key element in preventing similar attacks in America or elsewhere.
But a question had always nagged me: How could I truly endorse the war unless I actually went to Iraq? How did I know my assumptions were correct? And so last fall I traveled to the cradle of uncivilization, staying in Baghdad from mid-September to late October, with a four-day trip to the southern city of Basra. Although my experiences were by no means exhaustive, I feel confident that they were intense and profound enough to offer a valid perspective on the state of Iraq today. I spoke to cab drivers, Islamic clerics, waiters, Western journalists, American and British soldiers, anti-war activists, human rights activists, Iraqi housewives, employed and unemployed academics, children, U.S. government officials—as close to a full panoply of current Baghdad life as I could.
What I saw and heard surprised, delighted, and horrified me in ways I could never have predicted. I still support the war—even more so, in fact. But I'm less optimistic than I was on April 9, 2003, the day the statue of Saddam fell in downtown Baghdad, when, through my tears, I believed the good guys had won.
You don't have to agree with him to appreciate and admire the spirit behind his work. His death, like his work, transcends easy categorization or simple understanding. Precisely because he was at such risk—because he was far beyond the barricades of Baghdad's Green Zone and was not ensconced within the apparatus of a major news organization—he was bringing stories and perspectives that otherwise wouldn't have been told.
For journalists, his murder forces us to wonder what stories are worth dying for. His murder is somehow simultaneously an inspiration to us and a cautionary tale, a standing challenge and a tragic example to avoid. Will history vindicate his hopes for Iraq and the wider Middle East? The truthful answer is almost too horrific to admit: We won't know for a long time to come. In the meantime, we can only hope that his blood, and the blood of all the other innocent dead in Iraq, won't just disappear into the desert sand.