Breaking The Assassins

A Lebanese student outside the An Nahar building in Beirut protests against the assassination of Gebran Tueni.
A Lebanese student outside the An Nahar building in Beirut protests against the assassination of Gebran Tueni. (By Jamal Saidi -- Reuters)
By David Ignatius
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

This is the time of the assassins in the Arab world. On Monday they killed a brave Lebanese journalist who dared to tell the truth about Syria. This week in Iraq they will try to kill people who want to vote. They kill wives to intimidate their husbands. They kill children to frighten their parents into silence. Their power is the ability to create raw fear.

The shame for America isn't that we have tried to topple the rule of the assassins but that we have so far been unsuccessful. We thought we were cracking the old web of terror when America invaded Iraq in 2003, but it's still there, in the shadows of the shadows. George W. Bush gets a lot of things wrong, but he knows that he's fighting the assassins. On days like these, I'm glad that he is such a stubborn man.

What is this struggle about? Listen to some Arab voices. Yesterday the front page of the Beirut daily An Nahar carried an open letter from the Syrian-born Lebanese poet known as "Adonis," perhaps the most famous writer in the Arab world. It was written to the paper's celebrated editor, Ghassan Tueni, whose outspoken son Gebran had been murdered the previous day by a car bomb. "We are witnessing the destruction of the soul and the spirit," wrote the poet, whose real name is Ali Ahmed Said. The people who killed Gebran want to create "a temple of fear."

The headline atop the newspaper's front page said this: "Gebran didn't die and an-Nahar will continue." For a paper that had already lost its fearless columnist Samir Kassir to a car bomb in June, it was a defiant statement to the assassins: Kill us all. We aren't going to stop publishing the truth.

I spoke yesterday with Hisham Melhem, the paper's Washington bureau chief. His voice was cracking with emotion as he spoke of his colleagues: "I shudder when I think of the courage of Gebran and Samir. They knew they were dead men walking. But they were never intimidated."

Amid the Bush administration's mistakes and lies about Iraq over the past three years, it's easy to lose sight of what is at stake in this battle. But this week brings it back to square one: It's about breaking the power of the assassins.

The Baath Party in Iraq ruled by its sheer brutality. I gathered reports from Iraqi dissidents and human rights workers in the early 1990s, when I was researching my novel about Iraq, "The Bank of Fear." These stories are sickening to recount, even now: The children of Shiite rebels in southern Iraq, dropped from helicopters to terrify the parents; dissidents who had nails driven into their heads; and prisoners beaten with metal cables until they collapsed or died. At Saddam Hussein's trial last week, a woman was speaking about how she had been beaten with those cables. Watching his arrogant scorn for the testimony of his victims, I remembered what the war is about.

The Baath Party in Syria has governed much the same way, though it saved its worst brutality for neighboring Lebanon. The Syrians maintained their mandate by demonstrating that they were prepared to kill anyone who got in their way: a president, a prime minister, a religious leader, a journalist. The price of speaking out was death. That was the message: This is the land of death. Enter into this theater of violence and we will swallow you up.

I think of my friend and teacher, Ghassan Tueni, who is grieving for his son today. When he received an honorary doctorate at the American University of Beirut last June, Tueni recalled the time he spent in prison in the late 1940s for defying the censors and repressors of the day. He read a copy of Socrates that had been smuggled into his cell and decided he would pursue a kind of Socratic journalism that would engage in a dialogue with readers and incite them to discover the truth.

"I have to say, with much sorrow, that much of what the Arab world suffers from is largely due to the fact that neither our diplomacy nor our press has dared, or even been allowed, to tell the people the truth about our state of being and where we stand in the world," Tueni said at the end of that speech. But that wasn't true. He did dare.

People like the Tuenis who refuse to be intimidated should inspire the rest of us. So should the millions of Iraqis who will vote tomorrow. They are trying to break the culture of intimidation and death. Americans should feel proud to be on their side.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company