In Memoriam: Daniel Pearl The Pen & the Sword

On the day his London friends pay tribute to the memory of slain Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl at St Bride's, the city's 'journalist's church' in Fleet Street, longtime Index on Censorship contributor Salil Tripathi shares his thoughts about a brave and constantly inquiring journalist.

When Daniel Pearl went to meet a contact for an appointment that turned out to be so tragic and fatal, a retinue of bodyguards did not accompany him, nor was he concealing a weapon.
He was armed only with a notebook and a pencil, the oldest tools of trade for a reporter. He was curious about a world getting increasingly more complex, and he wanted to find answers to the complexities of our time.

In this, he sought clarity in a world that is muddled; he wanted to cast light on forces of darkness.
And he would have done what fine reporters do: he would have reported the reality accurately, adding to our knowledge and understanding, allowing us to form our judgment.

That is the gift of open societies, of which Danny was a product and a shining example. It is the kind of society his abductors, his tormentors, his murderers, do not understand; in fact they fear such a society.

Which is why they could only see him from their perspective - as an agent in disguise representing a foreign force they were fighting; not as a sensitive, intelligent man who was going to probe them. And they feared his questions.

It is that aspect of Danny's work that his abductors found so horrifying; for they believe not in the pen, but the sword. The fact that someone could come to them and ask pointed questions, interpret their answers and form his own independent opinion is antithetical to everything they have believed in; it is alien to their thinking.

For the culture of the sword always imposes one interpretation on the people it subjects to its tyranny. There cannot be room for any questions in such a world, there are only absolute, simple answers, and only from one source.

The nail that will stick out will be hammered down; the one who questions too much is to be made example of and made to swallow his words. And if he remains unbent, he must be annihilated.
Reporters like Danny are not armed with swords or guns. They are armed only with their curiosity, their intelligence and their questions. Their strength lies in their independence. That's why their notebooks and pencils are so scary to those forces of darkness.

The reporter challenges the unilateral view of the sword by sketching the scenario behind the curtain. He tells us when the emperor has no clothes; he shows us that the grand background behind the preacher is only a cardboard cutout.

He reveals that the extremist's rhetoric is often not grounded in the scriptures and books he claims to quote from but from whimsical personal interpretation; and that what the group claims does not mesh with reality.

The sword-wielders are not only enemies of light and transparency, they are also, in the memorable words of Salman Rushdie, the arch-enemies of language itself.

In Rushdie's "Haroun and the Sea of Stories", the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech was called Khattam-Shud (It is finished, or The End). His land is the land of Chup (silence), of a cult of dumbness and muteness, where Khattam-Shud has moved beyond preaching hatred towards only
stories; he opposes speech for any reason at all.

But what looked outwardly stable was internally fragile. It is pertinent to remember that Rushdie wrote this novel in his first months of forced exile, after the publication of "The Satanic Verses", which led to Ayatollah Khomeini declaring a fatwa on him in 1989. But speech wins, in the end.

Think of closed societies and closed cultures from the past -- they have always been destroyed because they have been corroded internally: the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, apartheid-era South Africa, Talibanist Afghanistan. All these societies produce warriors that march to a thunderous drum, soldiers who look strong and cohesive.

But when the crunch comes, they collapse, because they force their people to live a lie; and the lie is this: their closed system, their rule by the sword, is superior to the civilized world. Then think of the open societies of the world, which appear brittle and frail precisely because they are cacophonous, where everyone can contradict everyone else, and where a reporter with a pencil can ask probing questions and bring down a government.

That fragility seems fatally flawed, but it is, in reality, its greatest strength. During the Cold War, Jean-Francois Revel wrote "Why Democracies Perish", in which he anxiously feared that the discipline, might and unity of the Soviet bloc will one day overwhelm market-oriented liberal, capitalist democracies. He wrote his book in mid-1980s; within five years the Soviet Bloc had disintegrated.
Here is Rushdie again: "All those arguments and debates, all that openness, had created powerful bonds of fellowship between them... The Chupwalas (those from the silent land) turned out to be a disunited rabble, suspicious and distrustful of one another. The land of Gup (talk) is bathed in endless sunshine, while over in Chup, it is always the middle of the night."

Danny tried to flash his torchlight in that area of darkness to find out the truth for all of us. His killers want to hide the truth. We will miss the clarity he brought to our world, and the wisdom he shared with us; we grieve his passing.

But by their act, they have revealed themselves, and energised reporters around the world to continue to ask uncomfortable questions.

The silence of the sword is always weak; the eloquence of the pen resonates forever.