Remembering Danny

A Monitor reporter salutes his fallen colleague, Daniel Pearl, and his devotion to his work and family.

"Here she is," a glowing Danny said in early 1999, whipping a photo out of his wallet. He couldn't stop gushing about his beautiful French fiancée, Mariane.

It was a wonderful emotion to see in Danny Pearl - a friend and colleague from The Wall Street Journal, so smitten with life that he couldn't keep a grin off his bespectacled face.

"Well," he asked theatrically, "What do you think?"

That was Danny: sharing his good fortune, infecting all he touched with his self-effacing laughter, charming his way into everything - and out of anything. Here was a man engaged in living; a compassionate man, who would have begun getting to know his unborn baby boy by speaking gently to Mariane's round tummy. But one month after Danny was abducted in Karachi, while contacting Islamic militants, he was brutally murdered in front of a video camera.

The brutality of his murder may have stemmed from the humiliation his captors felt. From special forces units in Afghanistan - who wear "I Love New York" patches on their uniforms - to the madrassas in Pakistan, where the fall of the Taliban and Al Qaeda is keenly felt, revenge is a key word.

For journalists, the post-Sept. 11 war on terror means a new level of danger. Danny's killing takes the toll of journalists to nine, more than the number of US soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan.

If his kidnappers' e-mails are to be believed, one could argue that Danny was a victim of America's relative success in the Afghan war - and the violent backlash it has spawned.

Danny probed Al Qaeda connections and found himself in the midst of this maelstrom. He was among those foreign correspondents for whom the search for truth is almost a religion. They know that policies and political rhetoric often paint inaccurate pictures of reality, using only black and white.

Like others, Danny saw his mission as exploring and defining the all-important gray areas - giving voice to the voiceless, and reminding decisionmakers that their acts have real-life consequences.

Ever cautious, Danny had told fellow journalists in Pakistan that he was leaving the Afghanistan conflict to them, because it was too dangerous for an expectant father.

It was always so. When I first met Danny in 1996 in Iran, driving together for days, he was very concerned about the risks of our extra-legal crossing into Iraqi Kurdistan to meet a local warlord. In Iran last week, I thought of that reluctance again in the lobby of the same hotel where we plotted our trip - and of how unlikely it was that Danny was a hostage.

During the years we both covered the Middle East, our paths crossed often. Danny was ebullient, and always looked like an ambitious young attorney with his wrinkle-free suit jacket - an item that we joked about.

In Iran, I admired his detailed list of contacts - a masterpiece that he had inherited from a predecessor. It became a template for all my own future contact lists. He was generous with those numbers: During the next few years, we exchanged contacts in odd places.

And we sometimes raced each other for quirky story angles. He could write like a dream. He once turned a toss-away story about a revival of pearl-diving songs in the tiny Gulf state of Qatar into a lengthy page 1 Wall Street Journal story.

Danny was good-naturedly aggrieved - accusing me of leaving him nothing to write when I beat him to stories in Iran on the rising popularity of plastic surgery for Western-style noses, and a piece about a government family-planning program in the Islamic republic.

One of the last times I saw Danny was during the funeral of Jordan's King Hussein. Afterwards, he came briefly to a party at our house.

Immaculate as always, armed with his laptop and that grin, he stayed long enough to show us his cherished photograph of Mariane, and we admired it together. Then he apologized profusely, and ducked out to file.

Danny made a decision on Jan. 23 that all foreign correspondents have made many times before. Nothing cavalier, nothing cowboylike - just pursuing a story.

Even before the US bombardment, there were many Islamic militants cut from the same cloth as those who Danny was investigating, and who were to kill him.

Two years ago, I was hailing a motorized rickshaw on a crowded street in Taliban-controlled Kandahar. Suddenly, I heard raised voices, as two men behind me held a chilling debate.

"If I kill this infidel now, I will be in paradise," declared a man in the crowd as I climbed into a rickshaw with an Afghan guide and interpreter. "I will become Ghazi!" he proclaimed, referring to the level of paradise where some Muslims believe that God blesses those who dispatch non-believers.

The two Afghans with me overheard the line, spoken in their language, and were deeply agitated. As we pulled away, safely obscured by the bright, blue-colored plastic sides of the rickshaw, my Afghan guide whipped around to look back one last time, muttering about making sure that the man had not pulled a pistol from beneath his woolen shawl.

"For the Afghan people, it doesn't matter your tribe or race," my guide explained, stroking his long, black beard. "Religion is everything."

Such thoughts may have been with Danny's abductors, when they decided to kill their American captive. Danny was on the Wall Street Journal staff for 12 years, and during that time we all have lamented the passing of comrades who have fallen in Somalia, Bosnia, northern Iraq, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan. I'm sure that Danny would agree that the greatest tribute to them is to keep the faith, and to keep working.

I am sure that Danny had no regrets about his work, and knew that he inspired others during his life.

But in this business, we often have time alone to examine our motives. By definition, being a foreign correspondent requires time away from home and family. We often become over-familiar with death and suffering, with rage and despair of other families, though there are also moments of pure joy. It is a job that can be emotionally draining, physically painful, and lonely. It is all-consuming, and rarely respects family needs or normal working hours.

I can only imagine what he must have felt while in captivity. But I can't help but remember a moment during the Afghan campaign last year, after following the Northern Alliance forces into Kabul, as they liberated the capital.

I felt unsettled by the magnitude of events taking place around me. But as I was listening to the BBC on my shortwave radio, I heard snippets of the central aria from Bizet's opera, The Pearl Fishers. Unexpectedly, all my concerns slid into perspective, and on the wings of that aria, I felt an epiphany.

Overwhelmed by gratitude, the emotion burning hot in my eyes, I called my wife, who was very pregnant. I wanted reassurance of love from her, and from the voices of my two children. And I wanted to reassure, too, of my unbounded love for them, though I was so far away.

That was a call that Danny was never able to make, when his loved ones needed it more than anything.

Throughout this ordeal, Mariane has been a model of poise and strength. Her tears will be shared by so many, even as we celebrate Danny's life.

They are for a son who will never hear his father's voice again. And for a vulnerability we journalists feel, now laid bare.

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