On Monday, Nov. 28, the government of Canada “fell” and Michael Ignatieff—the Harvard professor of human-rights policy, intellectual supporter of the war in Iraq and contributor of many thousands of words of copy to The New York Times Magazine—put the Canadians out of their misery. He promised to return home to save them.
After months of fretting and speculation, Mr. Ignatieff, 58, officially announced that he is suspending his career as an American academic-media star and moving back to Toronto, his hometown, to become a professional politician. The news came a few days before Canada’s ruling Liberal Party suffered a vote of no confidence in Parliament, forcing a federal election to be scheduled in January. Mr. Ignatieff said that he intends to run for a parliamentary seat in that election, and he is widely regarded as a potential future prime minister once the besieged current one, Paul Martin, steps down.
In addition to his departure from Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, where he has been the director since 2000, Mr. Ignatieff’s repatriation will leave a large hole at The New York Times Magazine, where he has been a contributing writer since 2002. His 7,000-word pieces explored such heady topics as why the U.S. is in Iraq and whether the mistreatment of terrorism suspects is ever acceptable.
“He’ll remain a very good friend of the magazine, but he won’t obviously be writing in the near future for us,” said Gerry Marzorati, the editor of The Times Magazine. “I think he just feels, as he put it to me, it’s sort of an existential thing—if he didn’t do it, he may be spending the rest of his life wondering if maybe he didn’t do it because he felt he couldn’t do it.”
Mr. Marzorati said that while there was no official policy barring foreign candidates for higher office from contributing to the magazine, he expected Mr. Ignatieff to be a “a very busy man, if he is elected, which he expects to be.”
In any case, the slot for a non-Republican interpreter of Bush administration policies has already been filled by another highly mediagenic member of academe who made his name writing about Iraq: The magazine just signed up N.Y.U. law professor Noah Feldman as a contributing writer.
“He was called the new intellectual ‘It’ boy, or whatever it was—I guess we’re at the point now where someone can be an intellectual ‘It’ boy—by Kurt Andersen in New York magazine,” Mr. Marzorati said of Mr. Feldman. “He’s very young and, I think, amazingly thoughtful. What I think he shares with Michael is he’s a liberal thinker who is not reflexive—that is, his responses to events and ideas are not reflexive. He can be a surprising thinker.” The intellectual “It” boy will have a short piece in the magazine’s upcoming “Ideas” issue, Mr. Marzorati said, and has already embarked upon a couple of longer projects.
In the meantime, Mr. Ignatieff (who didn’t return calls from The Observer) will be completing his last semester at Harvard. He is currently teaching an undergraduate course called “Human Rights and International Politics: The Basic Policy Dilemmas,” while simultaneously launching his fledgling political campaign and preparing to take a one-year visiting professorship at the University of Toronto, beginning in January 2006. He has the option to return to Harvard after his unpaid “public-service leave” if he is gone less than two years.
In August, the Toronto Star quoted an anonymous friend of Mr. Ignatieff’s as saying that the human-rights expert and his wife had purchased a condominium in Toronto, although it’s unclear if they are living in it yet, as Mr. Ignatieff appears presently to be residing in several places at once: Colleagues at Harvard said that he was in Cambridge until mid-December; the president of the Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario) said that he was “back and forth quite a bit,” while one member of the Toronto academic community was under the impression that he’d already joined the University of Toronto.
“I know he has been meeting all of his obligations to us, and he was quite clear about making sure he would not shortchange his students or other responsibilities here to do campaigning,” said Stephen Walt, the academic dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “I’m sorry Michael will be leaving, but on the other hand, I can’t think that what he’s doing is inappropriate for a faculty member at a school of government.”
Mr. Ignatieff will be under greater scrutiny as a potential future leader of Canada than he ever was at Harvard or The Times, though many of his recent ideological positions have already caused controversy in the left-intellectual world that made him.
For one thing, Canadians are a rather sensitive group, especially when confronted with favored sons who fled the country to make their fortunes elsewhere—becoming part of the mythical “brain drain.” Mr. Ignatieff hasn’t lived in Canada since 1978. His status as a parachute artist—one who was literally plucked by party leaders and inserted as a candidate in the district where he’s running—is sure to dog him, as will his high-profile support of the invasion of Iraq. (To say that the war is unpopular in Canada would be an understatement.)
One of the byproducts of being a largish fish in a small lake is an intense amount of media attention. For months, the Canadian press has tracked his every move, and he spent one of his first official days on the campaign trail trying to placate annoyed Ukrainian-Canadians who were protesting his candidacy. Their objections were based in part on some quotes about Ukrainian culture from his 1993 book Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, which were reprinted out of context in multiple newspaper articles.
Thus, Mr. Ignatieff’s first official statement to his future constituents was centered around the following: “I have a deep, personal affinity with the suffering of the Ukrainian people at the hands of Soviet Russia and a deep respect for the Ukrainian-Canadian community. My own family escaped to Ukraine following the Russian Revolution …. I have taken my children to those national parks of Canada where Ukrainians were interned during World War II. I have tried to translate the horrible weight of the Ukrainian experience not only to them, but also to thousands of students and readers …. ”
In some ways, the absurdity of modern political life might come as a relief from some of the tensions he faced in his career as an intellectual and pundit where Mr. Ignatieff carved out arguments that were often seen as a defense of American military aggression.
“I think that his position on the war was atypical in the human-rights community, for sure. Not that it was unique, but he is controversial,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, the executive director of the University Committee on Human Rights Studies at the Carr Center. “I think most people in the liberal-left academy strongly disagreed with him, but that’s not to say everybody did. [But] even people who considered themselves realists disagree with the perspective that you could bring in democracy from outside, and that it was legitimate in terms of international law, especially when there was no direct threat.”
One skirmish between “Iggy,” as he is sometimes referred to, and his former buddies was revealed in an article in the Toronto Star over the summer. It had to do with another piece that appeared in Index on Censorship, a U.K.-based quarterly, which argued that torture was “making a comeback” and fingered some (formerly) lefty intellectuals and human-rights experts for crafting arguments that could be used by Donald Rumsfeld to justify mistreatment of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and beyond.
“Michael Ignatieff is probably the most important figure to fall into this category of hand-wringing, apologetic apologists for human-rights abuses,” the author, a London School of Economics professor named Conor Gearty, wrote in reference to Mr. Ignatieff’s 2004 book, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror.
According to the Toronto Star account, Mr. Ignatieff became enraged, claimed that irreparable harm had been done to his reputation, and quit the editorial and advisory board of Index on Censorship.
The Lesser Evil was excerpted in a Times Magazine article called “Lesser Evils,” which was the cover story of the May 2, 2004, issue. While Mr. Ignatieff wrote that an outright ban on torture itself was necessary, he said that Congress should define exactly what constitutes “acceptable degrees of coercive interrogation,” and suggested that acceptable degrees might include “forms of sleep deprivation that do not result in lasting harm to mental or physical health, together with disinformation and disorientation (like keeping prisoners in hoods) that would produce stress.”
The piece was unfortunately timed. The Magazine had already closed and was being distributed as the pictures of hooded Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were first becoming public.
But that was over a year ago, and it may not matter much to the Canadians who are breathlessly comparing Mr. Ignatieff to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Mr. Ignatieff does not yet share space on the list of the “Top Ten Greatest Canadians” that appears on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Web site, which might not bode well for his political future. He does, however, hold a different honor. According to Mr. Ignatieff’s bio on the Liberal Party’s Web site, Maclean’s magazine declared him Canada’s “Sexiest Cerebral Man” in 2003, because of “his made-for-TV looks and effortless eloquence.”
AMONG THE MOST VIVID IMAGES captured by Iraqi photojournalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad during the war in Iraq must be the confrontation in Baghdad’s Haifa Street in September 2004 between the Iraqis who had gathered to observe—and, in some cases, celebrate—a torched U.S. Army vehicle, and helicopters that came late to the scene.
In the widely reported incident, two U.S. helicopters opened fire on the crowd, injuring 61 and killing 13 Iraqi civilians, newspapers said. Mr. Abdul-Ahad almost became one of the casualties as he frantically snapped pictures of the scene.
The next day, his pictures of the encounter—showing bloodied civilians stunned and dying in the middle of the street—accompanied the story in the U.K. broadsheet The Guardian. Stateside, a handful of papers ran photographs from the incident, too; The New York Times even put one on page 1. But for the most part, the pictures were turned down as being too graphic for most American newspapers.
While not addressing the use of these particular photos, several photo editors at American newspapers told The Observer in interviews that strict “no blood” photo-editing policies have kept many of these difficult scenes from the war zone out of their pages.
“We are a family newspaper. So we have something I call ‘the kitchen-table standard,’ which is that anybody in your family can see the paper on the table and not be shocked,” said The Christian Science Monitor’s director of photography, Alfredo Sosa. “Our newspaper wouldn’t show a dead person. Blood in a hospital—that would be touchy also for us.”
Now, several of Mr. Abdul-Ahad’s images from the Haifa Street incident and an accompanying essay take up eight pages in the non-coffee-table photography book, Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.
The photographs join other harrowing photographs of life in post-invasion Iraq by Rita Leistner, Thorne Anderson and Kael Alford—many of them available to American readers for the first time.
The book has become the latest entrant into the battle of perception that has swelled around the Iraq war. This battle—which can be boiled down to a simple Shakespearean calculation, “To show or not to show?”—has raged at least since the first cruise missiles blasted from the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk on March 20, 2003.
Of all the graphic photographs in the book, perhaps the most eyeball-searing is Kael Alford’s picture of a small 8-year-old girl who looks like she is being given a bath. Naked and skinny, she lies on her side on a slab of blue stone tiles, her eyes open, a motherly-looking woman rubbing her arms as a pair of unseen hands pour water over her head. Her lips are pale, and at first you think this might be because she is cold. But then you notice that her whole body is the waxy color of frozen fish and that she is not, in fact, enjoying a bath. She is dead—killed, according to the accompanying caption, in a United States bombing raid on Baghdad. She is being washed for burial.
The photograph, dated March 28, 2003, never made it into the newspapers—at least not that Ms. Alford knows.
“I was filing a lot of civilian-casualty pictures [during the invasion], and I can tell you those pictures didn’t run as frequently as I filed them,” said Ms. Alford, who spent the three weeks of the invasion as an unembedded freelance photographer in Baghdad. “At some point, editors said, ‘O.K., no more civilian-casualty pictures,’ because they felt like once the story ran a couple of times about civilian casualties, that was enough.”
Unembedded begins with the early days of “Shock and Awe” and unfolds more or less chronologically, from the birth of the insurgency to the rise of the religious parties, and on finally to the August 2004 showdown between U.S. forces and the fierce, flip-flop-clad members of the Mahdi Army in Najaf.
There are also plenty of bloodless photos—pages of daily Iraqi life—though even these suggest a dark reality: women forced into increasingly traditional roles by the rising tide of religiosity, little boys learning to repair rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mobs of young men brandishing a photo of a burning Humvee. The point, said Ms. Alford, is to show “what the experience has been like for Iraqis.”
Judging from the anecdotal evidence, the graphic side of this experience has received a good deal more attention on the far side of the pond than it has in the United States.
“I think you can make a broad generalization that European or British newspapers are more willing to run photographs that are more graphic or provocative,” said Pancho Bernasconi, the director of photography for news for the wire photo service Getty Images. “But if the picture is important enough, the U.S. newspapers will do the same. People are running photographs that matter.”
While a number of the Unembedded photos did find their way into mainstream U.S. publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker, British newspapers like The Guardian have shown a steady appetite for some of the more gut-wrenching images coming out of Iraq.
“I think we should show these things,” said The Guardian’s head of photography, Roger Tooth. “We feel that our readership is quite grown-up and we don’t have to protect them too much from the realities of the world. We sort of worry about blood, but we don’t shy away if we need to.”
Not everyone agrees.
“We don’t need to bring this in to the breakfast table in the morning. We are a family-oriented newspaper,” said Daily News deputy director of photography Michael Lipack.
“Wars are very ugly things, and I think our readers know that,” he added. “I don’t think they need the New York Daily News to know it is a very ugly thing.”
But the Times director of photography, Michele McNally, disagreed.
“I feel like it is our historical responsibility to show what is happening,” she said. “If it is the penultimate [sic] moment of the event, then it is our responsibility to show it.”
While Ms. McNally acknowledged that she often gets images that are “a lot more graphic and gruesome” than what the paper regularly prints, she said she heads to the paper’s standards-and-ethics department about twice a week to press for a particularly powerful photograph. These pictures make it into the paper about 50 percent of the time, she said.
But, she added, “as the war keeps going on, you are seeing more material even in the smaller newspapers.”
The San Francisco Chronicle is one of these papers. While the paper has been bolder than some—it published a number of Ms. Alford’s photographs from the early days of the invasion, including a heartbreaking image of a boy and his dying mother—it has come under increasing pressure from its readers to show more hard-hitting images. “Recently, there’s a contingent of people who will call in and say, ‘You’re now showing how terrible this situation is, and you should provide a more balanced view,’” said the paper’s director of photography, Randy Greenwell. “So what we’ve done is, we’ll set up an area where there’s more graphic coverage of the war, and there’s a disclaimer in front of it.”
But just as some papers have begun moving to include more forceful imagery in their pages—to show the kind of raw images that come from “unilateral,” or unembedded, reporting—the violence has turned large swaths of the country into a no-reporting zone.
“It’s like a nightmare,” said Mr. Abdul-Ahad, who is the only one of the four Unembedded photographers still actively reporting from Iraq. “I am one of the lucky ones, because I am an Iraqi and I have a big beard on my face …. But the moment you pull your camera out of your bag, then your whole life has changed. It doesn’t matter if you’re Irish, English, Iraqi—your life is in danger.”
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