A Mighty Shame

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By Asra Q. Nomani
Sunday, June 24, 2007

O n Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2002, I stood at the gate of my rented house in Karachi, watching my friend Danny Pearl juggle a notebook, cellphone and earpiece as he bounded over to a taxicab idling in the street. He was off to try to find the alleged al-Qaeda handler of "shoe bomber" Richard Reid in Pakistan. "Good luck, dude," I called, waving cheerfully as he strode off, a lopsided grin on his face. His pregnant wife, Mariane, stood smiling and waving beside me as the taxi pulled away. A gaggle of parrots swooped through the trees above, squawking in the late afternoon sun.

That was the last image I had of Danny until late last month, when a PR executive for Paramount Vantage pulled up to my house in Morgantown, W.Va., in a black Lincoln Town Car. She was carrying a DVD of "A Mighty Heart," the just-released movie, based on the book by Mariane Pearl, about the staggering events that unfolded after that innocuous moment in Pakistan: Danny's kidnapping and eventual beheading.

With my parents and a friend beside me, I pressed "play" on my DVD player and settled in to watch. Slowly, as the scenes ticked by, my heart sank. I could live with having been reduced from a colleague of Danny's to a "charming assistant" to Mariane, as one review put it, and even with having been cut out of the scene in front of my house in Pakistan. That's the creative license Hollywood takes. What I couldn't accept was that Danny himself had been cut from his own story.

The character I saw on the screen was flat -- nerdy, bland and boring. He's not at all like Danny, who wrote "ditties" about Osama bin Laden while he was investigating Pakistan's nuclear secrets and jihadist groups as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. On screen, he's warned three times to meet with Sheik Mubarik Ali Gilani -- the man with whom he thought he had an interview -- only in public. But off he goes, ignoring the warnings. The message: Reckless journalist.

That was nothing like the Danny I knew. As the credits rolled, I murmured to my mother, "Danny had a cameo in his own murder."

For me, watching the movie was like having people enter my home, rearrange the furniture and reprogram my memory. I'd known it was a gamble when I agreed to help with a Hollywood version of Danny's kidnapping, but I'd done it because I thought the movie had the potential to be meaningful. I'd hoped it could honor the man I'd worked alongside for nine years at the Journal by explaining why he was so passionate about his work as a reporter. I'd hoped that it would tell the story of the unique team of law enforcement agents, government officials and journalists -- of varying religions, nationalities and cultures -- that had searched for him. And I hoped it could spark a search for the truth behind Danny's death.

But the moviemakers and their PR machine seemed intent on two very different and much shallower goals: creating a mega-star vehicle for Angelina Jolie, who plays Mariane, and promoting the glib and cliched idea that both Danny and Mariane were "ordinary heroes."

I think Danny would have rolled his eyes at that.

In the prologue to her book, Mariane wrote to her son: "I write this book for you, Adam, so you know that your father was not a hero but an ordinary man." In a movie voiceover, that dedication becomes: "This film is for our son so he knows that his father was an ordinary man. An ordinary hero."

But there weren't any real heroes in the story of Danny's tragedy. Danny would have said he was just doing his job. When he went off that day in Karachi, he didn't give any impression that he thought what he was doing was especially dangerous. He just had a story he wanted to pursue and an interview he thought would help him. After he vanished, I don't think any of us, not even Mariane, did anything particularly courageous, either. We each had a duty to try to find him -- either as professionals or because of the bonds of friendship or family.

I know that movies need a dramatic arc and that there has to be room for artistic license in the telling of a true story, because reality is often so chaotic. I know that it's natural to search for a compelling narrative structure to make sense of tragedy and pointlessness. And I do believe that Danny's last moments, as he declared his Jewishness for his kidnappers' video camera, showed his strength of character.

But recasting a story just so we can tell ourselves that we've found a hero is too easy. It's the quickest way to convince ourselves that what happened wasn't such a bad thing, that it had redeeming value, that we can close the book on it and move on with our lives. We do it too often -- with television shows about ordinary people with extraordinary powers, with magazine features that extol the "heroes among us" and with our impulse to elevate every story -- think Jessica Lynch, ambushed and wounded in Iraq -- to one of heroism.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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