Merrily, He Rolled: Pearl Was Exuberant, Deeply Cultured

PALO ALTO, CALIF.-Danny Pearl’s friends lingered together, in the velvety 6 o’clock California light, outside Memorial Church at Stanford. They politely ignored the local photographers who snapped pictures of them. They smiled and embraced. They did not seem mournful, but drawn; as if they had freshly escaped a harrowing time. They were a kind of set-lean, offbeat, well-off, at once hip and serious. A tall man with dyed blond snowboarding hair. A short-haired urbane woman in her one dark dress. A long-haired youth with his wallet tucked into his sock. He had sat for a while by himself under the wooden rafters of the majestic church, long after the Goldberg Variations, one of Mr. Pearl’s cherished pieces of music, had ended the memorial service, and the Kaddish, in Hebrew, had ceased to echo.

“What none of us can understand,” Ty Kim, managing editor at KPIX in San Francisco, said, “is the incredible barbarity of Danny’s death on the one hand, and his incredible humanity on the other. We just can’t put those things together.”

Many people, and many journalists, have struggled with the same issue. A popular way of reconciling these opposing ideas is to say that Mr. Pearl made a bad choice-which none of us would have made, of course-and stepped on a melting cornice of snow, and so he fell.

Those murmurings are everywhere. A global newspaper columnist who will go nameless here (in the spirit of Danny Pearl, who was compassionate and gentle) said over iced tea in the brick confines of the Lawn Club at Yale last week that Danny Pearl was “reckless.” The Times of India said as much on its front page two weeks back: Danny Pearl made stupid mistakes. And the nattering nabobs of New York are e-mailing one another the same intelligence: He was going to come home soon, his wife was six months pregnant, what the hell did he think he was doing?

As if the world in which Danny Pearl died can be avoided any longer by serious Western professionals.

The Wall Street Journal has not done a very good job of countering this talk. It has been magisterial; it has risen above. It has said flatly that Mr. Pearl was a very cautious person. “He was not a risk-taker. He was duped by sophisticated terrorists,” says Steve Goldstein, a spokesman for Dow Jones.

But maybe this assignment was risky. Journalists have to take risks. I asked Mr. Goldstein for the particulars of the assignment-what was its precise nature, whose idea was it, how high in the editorial chain did it go, and were the risks considered? Mr. Goldstein brushed me off: “We don’t discuss our reporters’ assignments.”

That isn’t going to end the issue. “I would like to get a tick-tock of what went on a month ago, when Pearl made his way to that restaurant,” says Stephen Bloom, a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

So far the only tick-tock to be offered was in the New York Post , which on Sunday published chilling e-mails sent to Mr. Pearl by his captors, luring him on in the most routine and deceptive fashion, stuff that any of us would have fallen for. But at its own Web site, The Journal ‘s chronology of events in the case begins after those e-mails, on Jan. 23, when Mr. Pearl was abducted. The Journal won’t say anything about the assignment.

“Danny was working on a broad story about the war’s impact on the region,” Mr. Goldstein says blandly, spinningly.

I said, “But I’ve read reports that Danny was working on a story about the plot to blow up the American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December.”

“There’s been a lot of speculation on what Danny was working on. I’m not going to address whether that was a false report.”

So we know more about Johnny Spann’s assignment-the C.I.A. man who was executed when he was interrogating prisoners in Afghanistan-than we do about Danny Pearl’s. That surely reflects the shift in the terms of engagement. This is a war of culture and information. Journalists are seen by the other side as combatants, and the Wall Street Journal spokesman sounds like a desk officer at the State Department.

Closed-mouthedness does not suit the spirit of Danny Pearl. He was not your typical corporate journalistic worker. He was smart and goofy. He was tremendously open. He was unneurotic. He would rather drive off into a rural part of Georgia to hear bluegrass, than burn a Friday night working said a friend who followed Mr. Pearl to biker bars and jazz clubs.

He did not take himself too seriously. Back in high school, outside Los Angeles, when his friend Craig Sherman announced that he intended to go to Stanford, Mr. Pearl laughed at him.

“Why do you want to go 400 miles to live in a Taco Bell when there are plenty you can go to right here?” A crack about ambition-and about Stanford’s dignified Mission architecture.

In the end, Danny Pearl went to Stanford himself, mastering the alt/art sides of his personality (he had gotten into Reed and Oberlin as well), and halfway through Stanford commenced his work as a journalist, founding a newspaper that tried to discuss politics in a nonpartisan and detached but serious way, which was Mr. Pearl’s style.

Sweetness, innocence, violin music and intelligence mingled in his personality. He had something of the luftmensch , the Jewish prince. He did his best thinking, he told his friend Karen Edwards, after he had dropped out of journalism for a while to work at a convenience store in Sun Valley, Idaho, and sat at the counter, bored and lost in thought.

Karen Edwards later visited Mr. Pearl in London in 1997. By now he was a rising star at The Journal , and Princess Diana had just died. At first the two Americans laughed at how broken up the Brits were. But at dinner parties Mr. Pearl hid away his offbeat humor, Ms. Edwards recalled at the memorial service, and talked to the Brits with sincere compassion, wanting to understand their values.

Danny Pearl was well-named: Charm was his. He played soccer all afternoon with strangers on a field in Atlanta and then met people he had only spoken with before by phone for dinner, changing out of his sweaty shirt into a fresh one in the middle of the restaurant, remembered a friend. Yet everyone was beguiled by him.

“He had an innocence, but he was not naïve,” said one person who knew him. “It was hard to bullshit him,”

Mr. Pearl’s most obvious pleasure as a journalist was to cross a barrier that intimidated others and, employing his faultless ear, show his readers that the Other was not so Other after all. His stories from Iran, for instance, demonstrated the humor and good nature of our recent enemies, and took an aural pride in using the term farsi boff , a corner-cutting trick among carpet-weavers of skipping knots.

At times, he didn’t seem to take his mind seriously enough. His work had not yet matured fully.

Like all Jewish princes, he was surrounded by women through a long and very social adolescence, and then married late-and well. In 1999, at 36, he married a French filmmaker and journalist, Mariane.

Karen Edwards attended the wedding in France.

“There were people of different nationalities, races and religious backgrounds. Children were welcome. There was a lot of merrymaking, but also many points of view were expressed at the tables. It was truly an exchange of international perspectives. I remember feeling very proud of Danny that day, and not because he was wearing a suit that matched,” she said.

Then the 600 people in Memorial Church laughed.

There will be a memorial fund for Danny Pearl, with good charities, you can be sure, and maybe someone will publish his work in a book. But it is already evident that his memory will be best served by his widow.

Her statement on Friday following the news of his death had a stunning clarity.

Mariane Pearl said that her husband’s work fought terrorism even as it sought to defy the easy idea of a “clash of civilizations.” And this work was not something he fell into, or made a stupid mistake of being in Karachi at the wrong time to perform. It was a solemn responsibility that he had accepted.

“This responsibility rests with each one of us, no matter our age, our gender, our nationality, our religion. No individual alone will be able to fight terrorism.”

The lonely individual: that is what’s so horrifying about Danny Pearl’s death, that someone so charming and social and privileged could have so little power in the end to transcend dumb barbarity. Mariane and Danny Pearl obviously experienced and were transformed by many days of existential loneliness. One can only hope that Mrs. Pearl will some day write about this experience, and will then give us the tick-tock on her husband’s assignment, which she is said to have wanted to join him on, except that she was not feeling well that night.

In her statement, she named her ordeal of the last few weeks a “struggle.”

“I trust that our struggle will ultimately serve the greater purpose of resisting those evil people casting a shadow upon our world.”

This talk of “resistance” and “struggle” and the individual harks back to Albert Camus’ resistance against evil in World War II. As journalists reflect on Danny Pearl’s death, and on their own (and get past the issue of his “mistakes” by considering the fact that if people hadn’t taken risks, we’d all be speaking German now), journalism will change. An era in which serious journalists churned out celebrity profiles may finally be over. Mariane Pearl says we have more important work to do, and this is inarguable.

Maybe that’s why those young people outside Danny Pearl’s memorial Monday in Palo Alto, Calif., did not seem so grief-stricken. Their friend had led a very full, free and meaningful life and had done so, in large part, merrily. Merrily, He Rolled: Pearl Was Exuberant, Deeply Cultured