Ten years ago today, a videotape was released that would shock the world, not only for what it contained but also for the dangerous precedent it set for journalists working abroad.
The tape showed — over an excrutiating three and a half minutes — the beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl. Pearl was the South Asia bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, and had gone to Pakistan for an interview relating to al-Qaeda.
Last year, newly public evidence showed that Khalid Sheik Mohammed had executed Pearl. Mohammed describes himself as the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and is currently being held at the U.S.-run military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Last week, BlogPost spoke to Pearl’s father, Judea, who is a computer scientist in his mid-70s at UCLA. He and his wife also run the Daniel Pearl Foundation, which was founded to “address the root causes of this tragedy, in the spirit, style, and principles that shaped Danny’s work and character.”
Here's our edited interview with Pearl:
Q. One of the mandates of the foundation is to foster understanding between East and West. How does the foundation work to do this?
Pearl: There are several things we do to fight hate and ... to return the planet to a reasonable orbit. Through our journalism fellowships, Muslim journalists get to spend time at a major newspaper in the U.S., and get exposed to something we all take for granted — free speech and free press. And then they return to their country of origin and feel entitled to it and influence other journalists to get what they deserve.
Q. Can you talk about one journalist who did this?
Pearl: Umar Cheema was a fellow who returned to Pakistan, where he wrote about corruption. He was then tortured and stripped naked, warned not to tell anyone what happened to him, and told never to do it again. But [Cheema] decided to take a stand. He wrote again and again, and he got five other journalists to come out and write on similar incidents, which by the way the police have not pursued yet. He said he had the courage to do that because he was a Daniel Pearl fellow, and he knew what freedom of the press was.
Q. Does it worry you that some fellows may go back to their countries and put their lives in danger with their reporting?
Pearl: No. People who apply for the fellowship are already in the state of mind that they are willing to take a stand, and be identified with freedom.
Q. What do you think of the Arab Spring protests?
Pearl: The heart of the issue, I think, is: Who is in charge? And are these people capable of leading their people to Muslim modernity? I think that 90 percent of these leaders are not people who can do that. In the beginning, I was encouraged by the Arab Spring, but then Egypt voted for the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, and there is also the violence. When people ask me about the Arab Spring I say it’s a misconception, it’s romantic. We all like to see Facebook transferring from a tyrant to young people. But the power is actually being transferred to the educators of these young people and we forget to ask who those educators are.
Q. Part of your work at UCLA focuses on handling uncertainty. Does this ever inform how you think about what happened to Daniel, or your work at the foundation?
Pearl: Well, yes, in that uncertainty can be applied to the political arena — on what to ignore or what to focus on. For example, you take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and everyone is dancing around the issues of settlements and the terrorism. But if you are looking at the cause and effect, and what causes the conflict — it goes back to something else, to education.
Q. You spend half of your time working on the foundation. Ten years later, is it difficult to do work that concerns Daniel almost every day?
Pearl: When I work at the foundation, I don’t think about Daniel; I think about the responsibility that history has bestowed upon us — to channel all the energy and good will that the tragedy has evoked into a good cause. All the hatred is a burden of history, that I have got to fight.
Q. Do you think journalism has become more or less dangerous?
Pearl: More dangerous, certainly. It may be that Daniel Pearl was a precedent, in that the aura of protection was broken. It was understood even to extreme elements that you don’t touch a journalist, that you will pay, but that myth has been broken. Now they look at the journalist as an agent of a foreign body.
Q. Daniel had a son, Adam, who is now 9. Do you ever talk to him about what happened to his father?
Pearl: We talk about it two to three times a year. He knows his father was murdered by bad people. He knows that it was a tragedy and that people got very upset about what happened, because it didn’t happen before. When he is older we will talk about it more. I want him to know that it is important to pursue the truth and love of humanity.