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Witnesses to an execution
Reflections on the meaning of the Daniel Pearl video ó and the Phoenixís decision to make it available
BY DAN KENNEDY

NOT LONG AGO, I learned the story of Alexander Katan, a Dutch-Jewish dwarf who was murdered in 1943 at the Nazi concentration camp of Mauthausen, in Austria. Katan was killed because a camp physician thought his skeleton would make an interesting specimen for his "curiosity cabinet," something he could show off to friends and colleagues. A Web site on Katanís death (www.internau.psi.br/pp/mauthausen/pseudo.htm) reflects this terrible reality. Staring out from the screen is Katan, dressed in prison garb, identification of some sort inscribed over his left pocket. Move the cursor over the photo and the living Katan gives way to his bones, propped up for display.

I asked Patricia Heberer, a historian at the US Holocaust Museum, in Washington, what more she could tell me about Katan. Her answer: not much. His family, she said, wanted as little attention drawn to him and his fate as possible. In fact, she told me, there is actually a third photo ó of Katan stripped naked, not long before he was killed ó that has been removed from Web sites and exhibition halls at the familyís request. Thus, as horrifying as Katanís story is, private sensibilities prevent us from experiencing it in its full, unmitigated awfulness.

I donít blame the Katans for not wanting the world to see one of their family members in his worst moment of fear and humiliation. But there are times when the importance of bearing witness to evil overrides personal considerations. Alexander Katan was killed because he was a Jew and a dwarf, and because Nazi ideology so dehumanized such people that a doctor ó a doctor ó could think nothing of killing him, boiling the flesh off his bones, and sticking what was left over in a display case. Alexander Katan belongs to the ages. He belongs to us, if weíre capable of understanding what heís trying to tell us.

So does Daniel Pearl.

Two weeks ago, the Phoenix touched off a media controversy by publishing on its Web site a link to a four-minute propaganda video made by Pearlís captors. It is a slick and sickening production: Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, is seen talking at length about his Jewish background while the screen is splashed with images of Palestinian suffering. He also talks about the alleged sins of the United States, comparing his own captivity to that of the Al Qaeda and Taliban militants being held at Guantánamo Bay. Then, after a quick fadeout, we see Pearlís apparently dead body lying on a floor as someone hacks off his head with a large knife. Finally, a hand holds up Pearlís head, and the anti-Israel propaganda continues to roll. "This is the single most gruesome, horrible, despicable, and horrifying thing Iíve ever seen," wrote Phoenix publisher Stephen Mindich in an online note headlined THOUGHTS ON POLITICAL PORNOGRAPHY, which accompanied the link.

Last week, the Phoenix upped the ante, publishing two small black-and-white photos, each measuring two-and-a-half by one-and-a-half inches, from the video on its editorial page ó one of Pearl talking, the other of his severed head being held aloft.

The reaction was immediate and harsh. Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvardís Kennedy School, told the Boston Globe, "I question whether this is about news or about trying to incite hatred of the people who did this." In an online commentary, the Poynter Instituteís Bob Steele wrote, "Any journalistic purpose in publishing the photos of his death is considerably outweighed by the emotional harm to Pearlís widow and family. At the least, publishing these photos is insensitive and disrespectful. It may be cruel." Vincent Alabiso, the Associated Pressís executive photo editor, told the New York Times that images from the video "do nothing to advance the story," adding: "To carry something this graphic, there needs to be an explicit reason based on news."

Members of the Pearl family have been adamant in insisting that no portion of the video air ó not even the non-graphic segment of Pearl talking that CBS News aired a few weeks ago.

I have to disagree ó respectfully and with full understanding that different people are going to reach different conclusions. Itís important to see the Daniel Pearl video because itís important to look into the face of the pure evil weíre up against. Itís important to see it because merely reading a description of it cannot do justice to its full horror. Itís important to see it because weíre at war ó and because this is what war looks like in 2002.

ADMITTEDLY, I am as conflicted as anyone about this ó in more ways than one. In the past, Iíve written that executions should be shown on live television (see "Donít Quote Me," News and Features, May 11, 2001). Yet just a few weeks ago, after CBS had broadcast the sanitized version of the Pearl video, I said on WGBH-TV/Channel 2ís Greater Boston that Pearlís murder should never be shown.

Iím also indirectly responsible for the Phoenixís decision to link to the video. A little more than two weeks ago, I came across a story on Wired.com regarding the FBIís antiĖFirst Amendment attempts to keep the video off the Web. Curious, I did a Google search to see if I could find the video ó and tracked it down in just a couple of minutes. I passed it along to a few people at Greater Boston and, more to the point, at the Phoenix, including editor Peter Kadzis, who forwarded it to Mindich. Mindich, in turn, followed the link and was so outraged that he suggested it be posted on BostonPhoenix.com. After a quick discussion between Mindich and Kadzis, the link was up at around noon. To the extent that I can write about this with any sense of proper distance at all, it is because I have studiously avoided talking with either Mindich or Kadzis about it since the link was posted.

So why do I now support putting up the link and publishing the photos? Two reasons, really.

First, I was struck by how many critics said the video, and the stills that were run in the print edition, would cause pain to the Pearl family ó a non-argument, as far as Iím concerned. Take, for instance, an opinion piece published on Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal, Pearlís newspaper. While conceding that the familyís objections should not be "morally dispositive," columnist Tunku Varadarajan wrote that "for a responsible paper, the opinion of Pearlís widow shouldn't amount to nothing. A philosophical question is whether oneís view of the Phoenixís judgment would be different if Mrs. Pearl had made no objection. Itís likely it might be; and this shows that public revulsion ó often a reliable indicator of wrong or right ó rests in important measure on the hurt being heaped on Mrs. Pearl."

Well, Iím sorry, but resting oneís case on the understandable objections of Mariane Pearl ó as many critics, not just Varadarajan and Steele, have done ó merely illustrates the weakness of their case. There are few businesses less sensitive to family considerations than the media, and thereís a reason for that. News is often about bad things happening to good people, and families frequently object quite bitterly to the way their loved ones are portrayed. This is an issue that community journalists have to deal with far more often than national media figures and foreign correspondents; no doubt Pearl learned something about these sensitivities when he was working for the Berkshire Eagle some years ago (he also briefly worked for the Phoenix about a dozen years ago). Any photographer for a small newspaper can tell tales about the abuse he or she gets when trying to take photos at the funerals of teenagers killed in drunk-driving accidents ó photos that no one needs to see in order to understand what happened, but which are assigned for the simple reason that there is news to be covered.

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Issue Date: June 13 - 20, 2002
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