Often, when I write something that is in the vaguest of terms controversial (as in, we shouldn’t change the names of our local train stations) I'll get at least a few emails telling me to consider another “career.” There is the presumption that I’m a journalist, and not a very good one at that.
I write this not to garner any sympathy but to express exactly the opposite: how very fortunate I am to live in the United States where it is still possible to enrage people and still return home at night in one piece (even using public transportation.) I also write to point out for the proverbial millionth time that I am not a journalist but, rather, an op-ed columnist who has been given the very great privilege of expressing her opinion every week.
Journalists are made of a different sort of fabric, woven with a generous dose of steel. The best of them, and they are legion, are fearless, and consider their profession a calling and a duty in much the way a priest accepts the sacramental orders or a soldier views the battlefield. Ironically, in many ways journalists can be warriors for the truth.
That’s not to say they’re all honorable and fearless. There are a lot of very rotten apples out there who twist facts to advance their own partisan agendas and who do so while dishonestly claiming the protection of neutrality and the First Amendment.
But the majority of those who devote their lives to being a transparent mirror by which world events and horrors are reflected back to us act with courage and in good faith. And like soldiers, they pay dearly for their efforts.
America has seen that these past few weeks with the gruesome assassinations of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were beheaded by the monsters of the Islamic State. Many have justifiably focused in the geopolitical considerations of these horrific tragedies and have used these deaths to lobby for more (or no) boots on the ground in the Middle East.
But I was equally struck by the human collateral damage created by the attacks on two incredibly brave journalists who, by all accounts, were trying to focus the world’s attention on the atrocities being committed in that part of the world, a part of the world from which Western eyes are easily diverted and refocused on one of the many Kardashian weddings.
And this brought home to me how dangerous it is to be history’s stenographer.
This is hardly a recent phenomenon. Journalists have been an endangered species ever since tyrants have ruled some corner of the earth. Here are a few of the more notable examples:
In 1996, an Irish reporter named Veronica Guerin was investigating the heroin trade rampant among the youth in her country. She was fearless in exposing the brutality of the pushers and their pseudo-corporate backers who had amazing impunity from the Irish government, which was doing little or nothing to take corrective measures, like seizing assets. She was beaten and threatened on numerous occasions until one day in June 1996 she was ambushed on the highway and shot to death.
In Russia, an award-winning journalist and author named Anna Politkovskaya was a forthright critic of Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial actions in Chechnya. She wrote article after article about his human rights violations, and a book entitled Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy. Despite numerous threats to her safety she was undaunted. In October 2006 she was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building.
Last month, a Mexican journalist named Octavio Rojas Hernandez, who had been investigating police corruption, was shot point blank in front of his home by someone pretending to be interested in purchasing his car. He was among the literally hundreds of Central and South American journalists murdered in the drug wars.
These are just a bloody drop in the bucket of irreplaceable losses the journalistic community and the greater world has suffered in the past decades. The Committee to Protect Journalists has been keeping track of these losses for more than 20 years, and this year alone confirmed 34 killings.
Whenever I hear someone criticize a writer for speaking out, I smile and think “Good, that’s the way the process should work in America.” When I hear someone call for a writer’s firing I say, “Hmm, a little too close to censorship for me, but they’re allowed their opinion in America.”
But never very far from my mind is the sacrifice of people like Foley, Sotloff and the countless other men and women who lost their lives because they angered someone in another country, not our own.