The Bronx Blogger

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Islamists execute a good person, Steven Vincent

Steven Vincent was an art critic and New Yorker who witnessed the deaths of thousands of people in the World Trade Center attacks four years ago.

He decided to become a free-lance investigative journalist.

He ended up in Iraq documenting first-hand what the Iraqi people were doing and thinking in the aftermath of our invasion. He wrote a book about what he observed, In the Red Zone, that came out last November.

His book was particularly valuable inasmuch as he was one of the few American journalists in Iraq not to be embedded with coalition troops. He made a point of seeing and speaking to Iraqis where they lived and worked. His goal was to make an unfiltered Western/American/New York City appraisal of this very foreign nation and culture.

Steven went back to Iraq this past summer and did research for what was going to be his second book on Iraq. He intended to write a thorough-going expose of the situation in Basra and the southern Shiite-dominate region of Iraq. He wanted to bring attention to problems in the south of Iraq that largely go un-reported in our mainstream media.

Last night, Steven and his translator, Noor Al-Khal, were abducted off the street in Basra and subsequently shot and dumped outside. Noor Al-Khal is hospitalized in serious condition, but Steven was killed.

His murder was perhaps in retaliation for an op-ed of his that appeared in this past Sunday's New York Times. The op-ed is highly critical of "Islamic extremists and their Western-trained police enforcers" in Basra. His murder may also have been meant to keep him from writing his forthcoming book about Basra and southern Iraq.

I met Stephen last November one week after his book In the Red Zone was officially launched.

I had the opportunity to talk with him about Iraq and his book and President Bush. He related personal anecdotes about his bold journeys and he gave me his impressions of some of the various Iraqis he got to know. When I asked him about general strategy in Iraq and in the War on Terror, he carefully outlined his conclusions. He impressed me with his ability to entertain opposing ideas and his ability to modify his beliefs as he uncovered more and more information. He told me what he thought the worst difficulties in Iraq were likely to be.

When I was done talking to him, I found myself in the position of disagreeing with him on some important points in Iraq. I had not told him that I disagreed with him. I just made sure to question him about those points so I could extract the most benefit from his analysis and experience.

But it was definitely a strange experience for me. It was the first time I had personally discussed the war with someone and seriously disagreed with him, but still held the other person's opinion in extremely high regard. I had such high respect for Stephen's differing views that I determined to find out a lot more about our area of disagreement. I wanted to re-evaluate my own opinion and see if it was truly justified.

Perhaps in another post I'll talk about where we didn't see eye-to-eye. For now I'll just mention that it was such a big issue for him that it made him lose confidence in President Bush's leadership.

Stephen made a huge impression on me as a person. He was a serious, grounded person with a lively curiousity and respect for other people. He knowingly and willingly risked his life because he had a right to find out what was going on, and he was damned if anyone was going to intimidate him from doing what needed doing.

I hope the bastards who kidnapped him and shot him will regret having done so. Maybe Steven's death will be an event that brings about serious unintended consequences for his murderers.

I miss Steven and wish I had seen him again. The world has lost a very special and noble person.

Update: Here's a great post at the Mudville Gazette military blog.

Update, 8/4/05: The Belmont Club international affairs blog has a post on Steven's murder.

I left the following comment there (comment #63):

I met Steven Vincent last November.

Here's a short post I wrote today in his memory.

He risked his life for all of us, and now he's gone. Actually, he did more than risk his life, he pretty much ended up sacrificing it, like a canary in the Basra coal-mine.

We all owe a debt to him.

Update, 8/4/05: Here's a link to Steven's blog, which shares the name of his book on Iraq: In the Red Zone.

The piece below is today's New York Times article about Steven's murder:

American Journalist Is Shot to Death in Iraq,
Story by Edward Wong

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 3 - An American journalist writing about the rise of fundamentalist Islam was shot dead overnight after being abducted in the southern port city of Basra, American embassy and Iraqi officials said today. The journalist's translator was also shot and is in serious condition at a Basra hospital.

The body of the reporter, Steven Vincent, from New York, was found this morning. He had been dumped outdoors after being shot several times, and his hands were tied with a plastic wire, and a red piece of cloth was wrapped around his neck. He and his translator, Noor al-Khal, were kidnapped on Tuesday evening in downtown Basra by masked gunman in a pick-up truck as they left a moneychanger's shop near Mr. Vincent's hotel, police officials said.

The gunmen may have been in a police vehicle, The Associated Press reported, citing a police official in Basra.

Mr. Vincent was a middle-age freelance writer who recently had articles published in the Christian Science Monitor and the National Review. He told other journalists he was gathering material for a book on Basra. On Sunday, The New York Times printed an op-ed he had written about Basra, in which he sharply criticized the British government for allowing religious Shiite parties and clerics to take control of Basra and populate the security forces with their followers.

Since the start of the war, the British military has been charged with maintaining order in Basra, a heavily Shiite city run by religious parties.

Mr. Vincent is the first American reporter to be attacked and killed in the current Iraq war. Others have died from vehicle accidents or illnesses. In August 2004, an Italian journalist was abducted and murdered as he drove south of Baghdad to report on a Shiite revolt in Najaf.

"We of course are deeply saddened by it and have already notified the family and have extended our deepest condolences," said Pete Mitchell, a spokesman for the American embassy. "We're working very closely with Iraqi officials in Basra and with the British government to determine who might be responsible for this heinous crime."

Mr. Vincent was married and lived in the East Village of Manhattan. A short, wiry man with a penchant for cigars, he had been staying in the Merbid Hotel in downtown Basra for much of the summer. He was a fixture in the dining room, where he often had conversations with other journalists who were passing through.

Unlike most reporters working in Iraq, Mr. Vincent traveled without any security guards. He and Ms. Khal often took taxis to do interviews. But he also said he was reluctant to spend too much time in public areas such as restaurants or the Corniche, the city's popular riverside promenade.

He told this reporter in mid-June that he had worked as an art critic in New York until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That and the Iraq war prompted him to travel to Baghdad in 2003, a trip that resulted in a book called "In the Red Zone" and a Web log about his experiences. Mr. Vincent had been writing in his blog the entire time while he was in Basra.

Mr. Vincent was particularly incensed about the sharp divide between men and women in the Islamic world, and about the increasingly religious mores in Basra that forced women to wear full-length black robes in public. He said he fully supported the Iraq war, believing it was part of a much larger campaign being waged by the United States against "Islamo-fascism." But Mr. Vincent said he was also disappointed by the failure of the United States and Great Britain to enforce their visions of democracy here in Iraq, instead allowing religious politicians to seize power across the south.

Conservative Shiite parties have strengthened their hold on Basra since the January elections. They include the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was founded in Iran and wields enormous power in Baghdad, and the Fadilah Party, started by Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi, a hard-line cleric. The organization of Moktada al-Sadr, the young cleric who has led two rebellions against the Americans, also has great influence in Basra.

In his op-ed in The New York Times, Mr. Vincent wrote that "it is particularly troubling that sectarian tensions are increasing in Basra, which has long been held up as the brightest spot of the liberated Iraq."

Policemen, he said, were responsible for carrying out many of the assassinations of former Baath Party officials, in revenge for the oppression of the Shiites under Saddam Hussein.

"Unless the British include in their security sector reform strategy some basic lessons in democratic principles, Basra risks falling further under the sway of Islamic extremists and their Western-trained police enforcers," he wrote.

Mr. Vincent did not limit his reporting to the city of Basra. He traveled to towns outside the area, including Fao, a fishing port to the south, near the Iranian border. Along with other reporters, he recently accompanied the governor of Basra, Muhammad al-Waeli, on an inspection of an island in the middle of the Shatt al-Arab river, which runs alongside Basra to the Persian Gulf.

In late June, Mr. Vincent said he was lonely and getting tired, and that he appreciated the company of other foreign reporters who were passing through the hotel. But he said he wanted to stay in Iraq to see whether the National Assembly in Baghdad would approve a new constitution by Aug. 15, and how that might affect Basra. He said he intended to take a break in New York and return to cover national elections scheduled for December.

Several journalists staying at the same hotel last week recalled talking to Mr. Vincent about his work.

"He was kind of secretive about the specifics of what he was working on," said Thanassis Cambanis, a reporter for The Boston Globe, which is owned by The New York Times Co. "He told me he was leaving within weeks. He said he felt he had gotten most of the research done for his Basra book, and he was wrapping things up."

The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, said that as of June 28, at least 45 journalists and 20 media support workers have been killed while covering the war in Iraq since March 2003. Many of those killed have been Iraqis. Insurgents have been responsible for most of the deaths, though some killings have been due to American fire.

[Fakr al-Haider contributed reporting from Basra.]