Friday, March 15, 2013

A Harrowing Kidnapping of a Reporter in Syria

Vanity Fair's article by Richard Engel can be found in the April 2013 edition.

I've just read a piece by NBC's Richard Engel, who, with his entire news crew, was kidnapped by terrorists in Syria, December 2012. Thanks to luck and some mysterious help from a group of men whom Engel does not (exactly) identify, everybody got out five days later.

Engel knows the Middle East, speaks Arabic, and has worked in Beruit and Baghdad. I take nothing away from his expertise nor his bravery. Doing the job he has been doing with nothing more than a reporter's notepad as protection, is either courageous or foolish. Probably a lot of both.

The piece appears in this month's Vanity Fair, a Graydon Carter-edited mish mash of beautifully photographed trivialities and really good cultural, business, and international reporting. Just the kind of thing I like.

This frightening, first person tale from Engel is textbook Middle East: in Syria, dozens of factions are  fighting dozens of other factions, most for money, some for religion, some for territory, some joining sectarian feuds that go back thousands of years. The rebel guide Engel met up with that day was executed by the kidnappers during their ordeal. Engel doesn't even truly know who kidnapped him--what side they were on nor what they were seeking. His kidnappers were themselves killed in his rescue.

And by the way, his rescuers were such good shots they managed to kill only the kidnappers (at night) and not harm a hair on the heads of any of the hostages. Took them to safety in American vehicles and then vanished into the night. Had beards, but spoke English. I found myself inclined to speculate about the crew cuts those rescuers might be sporting under their Arab garb.

I thought it was also interesting that NBC asked for (and received from fellow journalists) a news blackout on Engel's kidnapping. Sensible it is, of course, as publicity only benefits the kidnappers. But can you imagine NBC agreeing to a news blackout on a Middle East kidnapping of any other Americans besides their own guys?

Americans seem to me especially naive when they do what Richard Engel did: walk into an area in which no law prevails; where life is cheap; where Westerners can be used to batter, barter, or behead--not to mention just plain rob. And the word "journalist" is going to protect them?

Beyond that; if the story he were risking his life to obtain could somehow add to our knowledge of the situation or better inform us about how to solve these terrible problems in the Muslim world, well, then, perhaps it might be worth such a risk. But is it? In truth: a professor of Middle Eastern history with a map and a pointer could give us better information.

But Dr. Expert would not give us what TV producers want from places like Syria. They want what is known in the trade as "bang bang." I'm not saying that's why Engel went--I'm sure his motives were much more idealistic than that. But I think that is why he was sent. Bang bang makes good television.

The passage of time has given me new respect for a reporter friend of mine who once turned down an assignment to cover the civil war in Lebanon. When I asked him why (with great wonder, because I, of course, wanted to go--back then) he answered, "Because they are shooting people over there and I don't want to be one of them." Many years later, when Daniel Pearl was executed, I was reminded of my friend, healthy and happy and working as a network reporter in Los Angeles.

Now that I'm older, I think his instincts were wise indeed.

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