DEAR READER: Foreign correspondent Marie Colvin bore witness to tragedy in the making

Friday, February 24, 2012 | 3:59 p.m. CST; updated 4:12 p.m. CST, Friday, February 24, 2012
This undated image, made available Wednesday by London's The Sunday Times, features journalist Marie Colvin in Cairo's Tahrir Square. A French government spokeswoman on Wednesday identified two Western reporters killed in Syria as Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik. Colvin, from Oyster Bay, New York, had been a foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times for two decades, reporting from the world's most dangerous places. She lost sight in her left eye in Sri Lanka in 2001.

War reporting is a dangerous business. Five journalists, including Tim Hetherington of "Restrepo" fame (2010 True/False Film Fest), were killed last year while on assignment in Libya, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

This year it’s Syria.


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Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik died Wednesday in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs. The Times of London said the Syrian army targeted the building, which served as an improvised media center. More than 10 rocket shells hit.

Ochlik was a French photographer who, although still in his 20s, had covered conflicts from Haiti to the Congo. Colvin, an American, wrote for The Sunday Times of London. List of wars she covered creates a horror house of human misery. 

Iraq. Chechnya. Zimbabwe. London Telegraph reporter Alex Spillius credits her with helping to save 1,500 refugees in East Timor by acting as shields until peacekeeping troops arrived.

The Balkans. Libya. Sierra Leone. She lost an eye to shrapnel in Sri Lanka.

I rarely write to you about international affairs. The purpose of my letters usually has to do with opening a window on the workings of the Missourian and, in doing so, providing a little context to journalism at large. So forgive me for going afar.

All journalists bear witness. For most of us, that means “surviving” barbed comments of outraged politicians or "suffering" through the next overlong meeting involving sewers or streets. It was the same act for Colvin and other journalists in Syria – but oh! so much more important, so much more dangerous.

As of Friday morning, two journalists who were injured at the same time Colvin and Ochlik died were still trapped in Baba Amr despite international pleas to get them to Lebanon for medical assistance. The bodies of Colvin and Ochlik still lie there.  

The week before their deaths, Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid died in the same area. One writer called him the Ernie Pyle of our generation. Shadid’s death was from an asthma attack caused by allergic reactions to horses like those that carried him across the border from Lebanon. Had he been reporting on a horse show at the Boone County Fairgrounds, he’d probably have been home with his family the same night.

Colvins’ editor at The Sunday Times told her to leave – it was too dangerous. She stayed.

The final dispatch of her life, from Baba Amr, contained the kind of detail that only an eyewitness could provide. Consider:

"It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours (sic). Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.

"Fearing the snipers' merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen."

And later:

"I entered Homs on a smugglers' route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches. Arriving in the darkened city in the early hours, I was met by a welcoming party keen for foreign journalists to reveal the city's plight to the world.

"So desperate were they that they bundled me into an open truck and drove at speed with the headlights on, everyone standing in the back shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ - God is the greatest. Inevitably, the Syrian army opened fire.

"When everyone had calmed down I was driven in a small car, its lights off, along dark empty streets, the danger palpable. As we passed an open stretch of road, a Syrian army unit fired on the car again with machineguns (sic) and launched a rocket-propelled grenade. We sped into a row of abandoned buildings for cover."

Colvin and Shadid put us in places we’d rather not be. They were our eyes and ears.

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Michael Williams February 24, 2012 | 6:40 p.m.

Tom: I'd be interested in your position on this:

(Report Comment)
frank christian February 24, 2012 | 8:43 p.m.

Mike, wonder if we might add to your inquiry, CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, U.S. citizen, who refused debriefing by U. S. (started to write, our) Defense Dept. upon return from 1st Gulf conflict, on grounds it would jeopardize his journalistic neutrality?

(Report Comment)
Tom Warhover February 25, 2012 | 8:43 a.m.

It's a classic hypothetical in ethics, Mike. I'm not sure the exercises relates here. From what I've read of Marie Colvin -- I didn't know her personally -- she would say her first obligation would be to the truth beyond any notions of loyalty or neutrality.

But I'll let her speak for herself. From a Nov. 2010 apeech, according to a Times of London story (which is behind a paywall, so I won't link):

"Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction, and death .. and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash. And yes, it means taking risks, not just for yourself but often for the people who work closely with you.

"Despite all the videos you see from the Ministry of Defence or the Pentagon, and all the sanitised language describing smart bombs and pinpoint strikes ... the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burnt houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers, children."

Her loyalty, it seems to me, wasn't for a particular government, even her own. It was to those men and women and children without a voice.

Those are the people who are dying by the thousands in Syria right now.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 25, 2012 | 9:08 a.m.

Tom: Part of what this article is about is, in your words, "...providing a little context to journalism."

I asked your position on the hypothetical, but you deferred to Marie.

For everyone else, I notice our State Department is muttering about Syrian WMDs and what to do about them. Also, I read reporter reactions to inhumanity in Syria, including the last line in Tom's story, which seems vaguely familiar me. Is it OK to think about such things again, or is it still Bush's fault?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 25, 2012 | 9:30 a.m.

Oops, my next-to-last line should read, "Also, I read reporter reactions to inhumanity in Syria, including the last line in Tom's [post].... which seems vaguely familiar me.

The error is noted and corrected in [brackets].

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 27, 2012 | 6:07 p.m.

Tom, do you have an opinion on the hypothetical?

How would you have behaved?

(Report Comment)
Tom Warhover February 28, 2012 | 12:08 p.m.

Update: British photojournalist Paul Conroy has been evacuated, six days after the attack that took the lives of Marie Colvin and Remi Olchik, according to the International Press Institute. However, "the whereabouts of French correspondent Edith Bouvier remain unconfirmed."

(Report Comment)
Tom Warhover February 28, 2012 | 12:15 p.m.

Mike, why is it important to you to have my opinion on a hypothetical case from 30 or 40 years ago? It's apples and oranges to the case I wrote about in the letter. There are people dying in Syria right now -- I heard on the radio this morning of a suspected massacre of 40 to 60 people.

Frankly, every time I start to write a response to your hypothetical, it seems to cheapen the whole point of what I originally wrote.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 28, 2012 | 12:41 p.m.

Ok Tom. Given the hypothetical, the fact you are a journalist, and that you wrote, "...providing a little context to journalism", I was just curious as to your position. In mid-Missouri, you and I probably won't face the situation anyway.

Although your students might, and they may have to make a rather hard choice of profession versus identity.

As will their "rescuers" such as soldiers or police who will be making life-or-no-life decisions of their own.

I, too, have situations where I start to write something, only to wad it up, throw it on the floor, and start again as you inferred in your last paragraph. I've never quit by fearing my response cheapened my original thoughts, tho; I only quit when I felt I was not clear in my own mind on the matter or, more rarely, because I believed I would be admitting something I didn't want others to know.

Yes, what is happening in Syria is horrible, just like in Iraq, Afghanistan, Uganda, Sudan, etc. Saying so doesn't do anything, tho. Is US military intervention on the table for you?

I retract the original question.

(Report Comment)
Daniel Jordan Jordan February 28, 2012 | 1:26 p.m.

Leave him alone. He's not running for office. He doesn't have to take your quiz.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 28, 2012 | 3:51 p.m.

Daniel: "He doesn't have to take your quiz."

You're right.

How 'bout you?

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle February 28, 2012 | 8:59 p.m.

Tom went well "above and beyond" in addressing your hypothetical red herring, Mike. So, unsatisfied, you pull a shell game? Pathetic. You don't deserve anyone's answer on this one.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 28, 2012 | 9:44 p.m.

Above and beyond? How so?

The hypothetical is this: You are an American reporter embedded with American enemies. You see the soldiers with whom you are embedded about to attack and kill American soldiers. What do you do? Watch and report the attack, seeing American soldiers killed?

Or do you try to warn the Americans?

Now, tell me or show me where Tom answered that question.....

This is a conflict of ethics versus loyalty. It's also appropriate to Tom's article. He describes journalists in very dangerous areas of the world, areas in which they can get killed, captured, or harmed. In some cases, these journalists are Americans. I want to know how they should behave regarding their profession and their citizenship when those are in conflict. I expect students of Tom's might also want to talk about this because they just might find themselves in that exact situation.

One question is if an American journalist harms Americans via their commitment to journalism (i.e., no action that causes harm), how much help should they expect from others who might be killed/wounded rescuing them?

This is a serious and very legitimate question given that various lives are at stake, the one needing helped, and the ones doing the rescuing.

We can even make an example here in Columbia. A reporter is a ride-along with a police officer. The reporter will be asked to stay in the car and observe and likely will not be able to leave the car during a police encounter.

The officer is shot/assaulted, and there is a shotgun in the police car.

You gonna keep your camera going, or do you have a responsibility to DO something?

There is no red herring. This is a hypothetical that can easily happen and has happened in similar forms. How many times have you seen videos on the news where a cameraman is taking pictures instead of helping save someone in trouble? A question is: Is that ethical? What if you were the person trying to be helped? Would you like that camera all that much??????

So, pull in your horns, Derrick. The ethics versus loyalty question is quite legitimate and is not one that's 30-40 years old.

It's now.

(Report Comment)
Jonathan Hopfenblatt February 29, 2012 | 12:11 a.m.

I think there's too much at play in the question, or at least enough that there's not a one-size-fits-all answer anyone would feel comfortable providing--and especially not when every answer can brand you a heartless/horrible person depending on how you look at it.

-Fear of death is a powerful motivator. If warning the American soldiers could get you killed should you get caught beforehand, whatever sense of duty to your country you may feel will probably take a back seat to survival instinct. Even trained soldiers fear death and act accordingly; there's no reason to think a journalist will fare any better trying to decide between doing the right thing and dying or doing the cowardly thing and living.
-As a journalist you're expected to report the news as is, but as a person you probably have an opinion on the matter. If you think that America is the bad guy in the picture, then warning the American soldiers would only make the situation worse from your point of view. It's not that you want the soldiers to die or anything, but rather that you'd be helping the bad guys commit even more injustices against a group of people you already feel are being mistreated.

It's not merely a question of commitment to the profession vs. commitment to the country, as there are many reasons to do one or the other irrespective of the question posed by the hypothetical. Even if it was, in fact, a matter of ethics vs. loyalty like you said, the answer is still not as straightforward as the question suggests.

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush February 29, 2012 | 12:54 a.m.

Petulence is a
Pestilence, and bullies have
No entitlement.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote February 29, 2012 | 9:41 a.m.

You don't think it is in the least bit distasteful that you would raise this issue in response to an article eulogizing reporters recently killed in the performance of their duties?

Your implication is/was that by not being cheerleaders for a preferred narrative they are less than patriotic. In this context, it is a completely ridiculous insinuation as the US is not involved in the conflict at hand. In fact, the official US position is that Assad must go. Thus, from the perspective of "us" vs. "them" the deceased reporters were on the right side (if you subscribe to that juvenile dichotomy). Perhaps if Marie Colvin, who lived in London, and her French cameraman had been wearing American flag lapel pins you would have more sympathy/respect?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 29, 2012 | 10:55 a.m.

Chris: Distasteful?

Sure, I can see that perspective. I had my own reasons for asking the original question, but your criticism is legitimate.

What I find most surprising is there are many more in this place upset with me at picking on Tom than being concerned about their decisional reluctance. This is an issue of professional commitment running into the brick wall of loyalty to the life of a fellow human being or, in this particular case, a fellow citizen. Perhaps even a neighbor. I think this is an important thing to think about because it helps define your relationship of trust and loyalty and obligation to another human.

Either you run towards, or run away, or you think about it. The last is the same as the second and, when it comes to dependability as a citizen/human, only the first is acceptable. I despise gawkers.

In the two scenarios I described, I have no confusion whatsoever and do not understand those who do. If I'm the journalist, I will warn Americans and deal with my own life and fellow journalists later. If I'm the reporter riding with an officer, I'm going to leave the car and help, probably with the shotgun in hand. I simply will not permit myself to watch, film and report while another citizen needs my immediate help and others more qualified are not near.

As far as Syria goes, if the dictator does not stop what he is doing, then he gets attacked militarily. It's simple for me; such things should not and cannot be allowed in this world. The scenario playing out in Syria is exactly the same one played out in Iraq in the last decade...a dictator seriously abusing fellow humans...and the corrective action taken is now viewed with extreme distaste. I hold no truck for those who bemoan such a situation, then gripe, withhold support, second-guess, and generally hinder those who actually do something.

IMO, you can't have your cake and eat it, too, when it comes to things like dependability, reliability, and loyalty. You either are, or you aren't. In my life, I've tried to surround myself with those I can trust and, so far, I've succeeded. Wishy-washy is not an option and I do not want to be near such a thing; I might need help and I don't want to be disappointed.

As far as Marie Colvin goes, she's not a part of this discussion at all, except that Tom gave me HER answer instead of her own. He punted....twice.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz February 29, 2012 | 11:45 a.m.

Michael, what about the radio that is also in the police car and presumably more accessible to the reporter on the ride along?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 29, 2012 | 1:36 p.m.

JohnS: Sure, the radio is fine if you know how to use it. By all means.....if you have the time. But, time is prolly in short supply for the police officer in trouble.

Seconds is prolly all you have. You have to act, or not act. Thinking is the same as not acting.

The police scenario and the soldier scenario are just two of many ethical difficulties that can be faced by journalists in life/death situations. The "ethics" are (1) when are you a journalist who also happens to be human, and (2) when are you a human who also happens to be a journalist? For those in trouble, one is far preferable to the other. If a journalist and I are first on the scene of an accident where folks need immediate help, I'm not going to be real happy if the journalist is busy taking notes; indeed, I won't react well at all. Journalists (like in the original link above) whose ethics involve ALWAYS remaining a recorder of events, with no mind to the consequences to life through their inaction, are not people I want around or near me. Such inaction is craven, imo.

(Report Comment)
Jonathan Hopfenblatt February 29, 2012 | 10:18 p.m.

Michael: "Either you run towards, or run away, or you think about it. The last is the same as the second and, when it comes to dependability as a citizen/human, only the first is acceptable. I despise gawkers."

I'm having flashbacks of that self-defense discussion. Time for some recycling:

1. It's easy to imagine yourself a Rambo if you haven't actually lived the events you're imagining. In reality most of us aren't Rambos, and most of us are proven wrong big time once our imagination becomes reality. Like I said earlier, even trained soldiers end up peeing themselves in actual combat. (That's not meant as disrespect, btw). Even if you've already risked your life for others under different circumstances, you're still not prepared for the experience of being that journalist. An educated guess is still a guess.

2. Again, you seem to be under the impression that acting for the sake of acting is always the best option. The results might have been good in your case, but for a lot people the results are often bad, and in fact worse than if they hadn't acted. Despite your continued denial, luck has everything to do with the outcome of our (in)decisions, and it's not just a matter of acting versus not acting. Plus, hesitance in the face of the unexpected/unfamiliar is a normal reaction, and it doesn't matter if sacrificing yourself for others is the right thing to do (as it often is): A lot of people don't because they literally can't, and you can't reasonably hold that against them. Instinct is called instinct for a reason.

More generally, a lot of things happen that shouldn't, and a lot of things that should happen don't. It's pretty weird that you despise inaction in the face of adversity, yet apparently not the adversity itself. The journalist wouldn't have to choose sides in the war if there was no war after all, and if you think that the vague answers here reveal a major problem with humanity, there are much bigger ones out there.

3. As mentioned previously, our hypothetical journalist might actually WANT to side with the "enemy." Hell, maybe the Americans in question aren't "real" soldiers, but rather Blackwater mercenaries. Maybe the "terrorists" in question aren't terrorists either, but rather villagers who've grown tired of being driven out of their homeland because it so happens to be the ideal spot for a new oil pipeline.

This will probably be one of those "agree to disagree" moments, but IMO allegiance to a country/flag/anthem/landmass is stupid. Plenty of people have already died because of the false notion that an arbitrary patches of geography create fundamentally different people. If you're worried about what's holding us back as species/society, tribalism ranks high on the list. An Iraqi rapist is no worse than an American one, and being Iraqi is not a reason to label him a rapist, or a terrorist, or otherwise inferior to us simply because he happened to be born elsewhere.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle February 29, 2012 | 10:19 p.m.

I sure know how to stir up a dead thread.

What if one of your daughters had an abortion? Purely hypothetical question, of course.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote February 29, 2012 | 11:53 p.m.

The salty version of H4 is almost as fun as the hackrobatic version.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams March 1, 2012 | 8:15 a.m.

Jon and Rambo:

But I HAVE lived similar events. Several times. I know exactly how I will behave because I've actually done it. I've always run toward, never away. Not once.

My dad taught me that by his own repeated examples, and my daughters have married men who behave the same way. I hope that trend continues.

This is not a "brag". It I'm only telling you this to give you perspective on why I think any journalist who films or takes notes when they are needed has sacrificed some humanity for their job. I cannot respect that posture.

Back to the specific examples of the embedded reporter (with soldiers or police officers)....contrary to you, I do believe in loyalties. My first loyalty is to my family and faith, my second is to my neighbors, third is to my community, fourth is to my state, fifth is to my nation, and sixth is to everyone else. It has to do with "closeness" of the relationship, how much I'm "depended" upon. I cannot imagine inaction when a fellow citizen/friend/neighbor/family member is about to be attacked, or is being attacked, by someone I identify as an enemy. I also would feel much less favorable towards someone who had demonstrated inactivity when they are the ones needing me or someone else to run towards, rather than away. I have expectations of certain types of behavior and will not associate with those who are not like-minded. Doing so could be dangerous...or disappointing.

Yes, we'll have to agree to disagree.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams March 1, 2012 | 8:19 a.m.

Derrick: I would be disappointed. I would mourn the loss of her child and my grandchild. I would also still love her. Why do you assume it's a hypothetical?

(Report Comment)
frank christian March 1, 2012 | 9:27 a.m.

"During the Spanish-American War of 1898, reporters, if anything, led cheers for the military. Throughout World War I, journalists considered themselves part of the war effort, not independent observers. This pattern of press and military cooperation continued through World War II.

But starting with the Korean War and then Vietnam, the press took an increasingly independent and critical view of the military."

Our military, then, thru WW2, knew that the press was on "our side". The times have been a'changin everywhere.

(Report Comment)
Gregg Bush March 1, 2012 | 9:37 a.m.

Don't beseech God to
Be on your side, instead pray
That you are on His.

(Report Comment)

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