Daniel Pearl told friends he was coming home. Pakistan was going to be his final fling with foreign journalism, he said; his wife Mariane was pregnant, and they were ready to rejoin the rhythm of American life.
“This was his victory lap,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, an associate dean at the Yale School of Management, who had befriended Mr. Pearl when the latter was a reporter in The Wall Street Journal ‘s Atlanta bureau and Mr. Sonnenfeld was teaching at Emory University. “He was almost done. This story … he could have passed on it, and almost did. That’s what makes it so tragic. I don’t think he thought it was going to be risky.”
And though a spokesperson for Dow Jones, The Journal ‘s parent company, said that there were no plans for Mr. Pearl to return to the U.S., sources said they understood he would be leaving Pakistan soon. On the day he was captured, Mr. Pearl spoke with a colleague who told him to drop the assignment he was working on-he was reporting on Islamic militants-and “get ready to come home.”
He never got home, of course. And the kidnapping and execution of Daniel Pearl became a mournful event for the country, and a seismic event in journalism.
It had already been a grim month for The Journal , not to mention a grueling six-month stretch since the Sept. 11 attacks drove the paper from its downtown offices. When the news of Mr. Pearl’s killing came, on Feb. 21, the Washington offices of the paper, where Mr. Pearl spent three years, was getting ready for a rare celebration: WSJ managing editor Paul Steiger was flying in to accept the Editor of the Year award from the National Press Foundation, and the staff was supposed to have drinks in the newsroom at 5:30 p.m. before the black-tie event.
The day before, the world had learned that Washington bureau chief Alan Murray was leaving The Journal , his home for 18 years, to go to CNBC. In the early afternoon, Mr. Murray was taking down books from his shelves and packing. At 2 p.m., Dow Jones vice president Steve Goldstein came by to tell Mr. Murray what he’d learned: that the F.B.I. had contacted officials at Dow Jones with news of a videotape showing that Mr. Pearl had been killed.
To buy time for notifying the family and to prevent leaks to the press, Mr. Murray pretended that nothing was wrong. He kept packing. Later, he said this act was “hard, but it gave me something to do.”
At 4:15, Mr. Steiger arrived and spoke to Mr. Murray briefly in his office, then told the Washington staff what had happened. He spoke of the man Mr. Pearl was, of the “barbarism” of his death. Mr. Murray, in place of Mr. Steiger, put on his tuxedo and dragged members of his staff to the awards at the Washington Hilton, where they attended the ceremony and drank “way too much,” then kept drinking in the hotel bar until Friday morning. A similar scene was being played out in New York, in a Soho bar, as those who knew Mr. Pearl gathered to drink and share stories of his life.
“He was the wrong guy in every respect for this,” Mr. Murray said. “He wasn’t interested in danger. He wasn’t a great patriot, and wasn’t overly jingoistic in his writing. Folks in the bureau referred to him as ‘Danny of Arabia.’ We thought he’d gone native because he was so sympathetic and empathetic to that part of the world.”
Since the initial report, the videotape of Mr. Pearl’s killing, unseen here, has become the focus of scrutiny. The reports of its contents first appeared in the papers here on Saturday, Feb. 23, with a description of Mr. Pearl speaking and having his throat cut in mid-sentence. Later, a severed head appears. This was modified in the next day’s newspapers, which reported that Mr. Pearl was forced to make a statement-”I am a Jew, my father is a Jew, my mother is a Jew”-followed by a jump in the videotape and a shot showing Mr. Pearl unconscious, with what appeared to be a chest wound. The tape then seemed to have been stopped and started again as his captors videotaped his throat being cut. Then there was a last sequence in which his captors videotaped his severed head next to his body. According to one reporter working on the story, the initial accounts of the videotape came from Pakistani officials, including some who had seen copies of the tape. But it also came from others who were repeating second- or third-hand accounts, filling in the void of information while American officials refused to discuss its contents.
The reporter said the second, more accurate accounts originated in the United States, from law-enforcement officers seeking to correct the record, then were confirmed by Pakistani officials with more detailed knowledge.
No one knows what Mr. Pearl felt in those last hours and days. One former war correspondent, held by enemy forces in another war, described his captivity: “What you feel is terror and guilt. After the initial fear goes, you feel guilty because of your family-especially your family. You start to think about your death and realize they may never know where your body is. Then the stupidity sets in. You think, ‘Jesus Christ, how could I do something so dumb?’”
But because Mr. Pearl didn’t make it, didn’t have a chance to win over his captors as people thought he might, the struggle to define his legacy has begun. Because he was killed in a Muslim country, in a hot spot of unrest, Mr. Pearl has been transformed into a war correspondent, inextricably linked with the nine others killed in Afghanistan since the conflict started last fall.
Indeed, only the day after the revelation , New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “I didn’t know Danny Pearl, but I feel as if I did.” Mr. Kristof went on to detail his interactions over the years with war correspondents rushing off to cover the Congo civil war, and a journalist desperate to cover the Afghanistan conflict, ready to don a burqa and enter the country dressed as a woman. His death, Mr. Kristof wrote, was supposed to teach us “about the need to take a deep breath before allowing competitive instincts to direct us down a dirt track toward an uncertain story on the other side of a checkpoint manned by drunken soldiers.”
It should be noted, though, that Mr. Pearl was nowhere near a front line or checkpoint manned by idiots drinking during their shift. As Mr. Murray put it: “He didn’t want to be a war correspondent. The story he wrote about the town making the world’s largest carpet in India, that was the kind of story he was in it for.”
And as new information surfaces on how his captors lured him, Mr. Pearl seems less and less like a classic risk-taking front-line war correspondent. In e-mails from his abductors obtained by the London Sunday Express and printed in the Sunday, Feb. 24, edition of the New York Pos t, they make the interview he sought seem harmless, a formality. One dated Jan. 16 compliments him on his articles, saying: “I enjoyed reading them and I have passed them on the printout to Shah Saab [Gilani]. He has now gone to Karachi for a few days and I am sure that when he returns we can go and see him. I am sorry to have not replied to you earlier, I was preoccupied with looking after my wife who has been ill. Please pray for her health.”
As Mr. Sonnenfeld put it: “He was going to a Western-sounding restaurant to meet somebody anchored in English. He had originally planned on taking Mariane. He wouldn’t put her in jeopardy. He’d been set up for this.”
And perhaps that’s what hurts here. Take away Pakistan and the “war on terror” and what you have at its most rudimentary level is a writer betrayed by a source. In this light, Mr. Pearl becomes less like, say, Claude Cockburn, charging into the Spanish Civil War and more like Bob Woodward, standing in a deserted parking lot, waiting for someone to deliver him the goods on Nixon.
“Here was a case,” said Michael Massing, a board member on the Committee to Protect Journalists, “where a journalist was targeted because he was a journalist, because he was working on a specific type of story and because he was Jewish.”
Of course, Mr. Pearl’s death came at a time when this city’s journalists, no longer earning their bread and butter from stories chronicling Pets.com, had already begun to question what their livelihoods should mean. After all, we are only slightly removed from a time in which, as author David Halberstam said, “feather merchants were the most visible, and the rewards for doing sillier things and self-promoting were far greater than people covering Sierra Leone.”
Those who spent the days after Sept. 11 running around with police ID badges and shaking the dust off of their clothes could claim the world had changed that day. But that’s only because the events of the world-the real world-had come to New York. But Daniel Pearl had already left his country for it.
“He had an intense desire to find bridges between cultures,” Mr. Sonnenfeld said. “He thought he needed to round himself out. He had gone to Washington”-from the WSJ ‘s Atlanta bureau in 1993-”to understand policy issues. He thought if he was going to understand globalization, he would have to live outside the U.S.”
For his part, Mr. Murray had vehemently tried to dissuade Mr. Pearl from accepting a job on the paper’s foreign desk in 1996. It had nothing to do with danger, he said. Instead, he told Mr. Pearl that he had a real future as a telecom reporter. The technology boom had already begun. There’d be plenty of stories in a very hot field. If he stayed, he told Mr. Pearl, there would be “be books in it and maybe more.”
“He could have made a great career for himself doing that,” Mr. Murray said. “He could have been our Ken Auletta. I really wanted him to stay. But he wanted to get out of Washington and report on the world.”