By: Shawn Moynihan
Steven Vincent, the American journalist murdered in Basra yesterday, was not a foreign correspondent. He was an art critic, who on September 11 watched from his East Village, Manhattan, rooftop (not far from the offices of E&P) as United Airlines Flight 175 flew into the World Trade Center.
Later, with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Vincent, 49, a self-described patriot, decided he wanted to be there as history unfolded, and record it as best he could. He then made his own personal journeys to Iraq in late 2003 and early 2004.
During that time, he was not on assignment for a particular newspaper or magazine. He was a freelancer, on his own, surviving mostly by his own wits and a lot of luck. He made friends, established contacts, conducted interviews, listened to The Grateful Dead, and wrote. A lot.
Vincent’s writings resulted in his November 2004 book “In the Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq,” a warts-and-all look at life in post-Sadaam Baghdad. Newspapers picked up on this voice that transcended the war to reveal the human side of the conflict, something all too often absent from war coverage. His stories probed deeper into the way the war affects the people involved, particularly Iraqis — again, something all too often lost in the media’s coverage of the war.
The Wall Street Journal, Harper’s, and the Christian Science Monitor carried some of Vincent’s accounts. The New York Times carried his fateful Op-Ed piece just last Sunday. That paper’s Baghdad-based reporter, Edward Wong, who knew Vincent, Wednesday called him a “short, wiry man with a penchant for cigars.”
Vincent didn’t just understand the mechanics of a well-written story. He understood the power of specific terms and the meanings they could imply. In a December interview with Frontpage Magazine, he noted how the choice of words by the mainstream media was distorting public perception of the situation in Iraq: “Instead of saying that the Coalition ‘invaded’ Iraq and ‘occupies’ it today, we could more precisely claim that the allies liberated the country and are currently reconstructing it. More than cosmetic changes, these definitions reflect the nobility of our effort in Iraq, and steal rhetorical ammunition from the left.
“Words matter. Words convey moral clarity. Without moral clarity, we will not succeed in Iraq.”
Jeff Harrell, who also interviewed Vincent in December for his blog The Shape of Days, became friendly with Vincent afterward, often trading e-mails. He told me today that in his estimation Vincent was “a consummate writer. Even the most casual e-mails he would send to me were a pleasure to read.”
Harrell noted Vincent’s uncanny ability to see the beauty in strange, foreign practices. His writings showed a deep respect for religious traditions that would almost certainly make Westerners cringe, like the religious commemoration of Ashura, in which men slice their heads with swords and processions of hundreds of male worshippers flagellate themselves with metal chains. Harrell observed, “It was his unique position as an art critic who became a war reporter that allowed him to do that.”
In June, Vincent wrote for National Review Online: “I can no longer wander the streets, take a cab, or dine in restaurants for fear of being spotted as a foreigner: Kidnapping, by criminal gangs or terrorists, remains a lucrative business. Instead, for safety’s sake, I’m tied to my hotel, dependent on expensive drivers, unable to go anywhere without Iraqi escort.”
Vincent, who is married (his wife is named Lisa Ramaci) returned to Iraq in early May and had been staying at the Merbid Hotel in the southern Iraqi city of Basra while researching a book on the city’s history. He had been posting several times a month to his blog, In the Red Zone. One recent post detailed the introduction of Vincent’s close Iraqi contact “Layla” to an Air Force captain who was rewarding millions of dollars in military contracts to Iraqi contractors who, as Vincent’s friend pointed out to the captain’s horror, may actually be funneling the money to religious groups or extremists.
On Sunday, in the Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, he reported that Basra’s police force had been infiltrated by members of Shi’ite political groups, including those loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He also accused the British military — which is responsible for the city’s security — for ignoring abuses of power by Shi’ite extremists in Basra.
Whether or not Vincent was targeted for his report in the Times may never be known. But he and his Iraqi translator, identified by The Associated Press as Nour Weidi, were abducted Tuesday afternoon by five gunmen in a police car.
Wednesday morning, the U.S. Embassy reported that Vincent had been found dead, his body ditched on the side of a highway south of Basra. He had been shot in the head and multiple times in the body, according to Iraqi police.
On Wednesday, Edward Wong recalled Vincent “tapping away on his white Apple laptop in its dining room. He told this reporter in late June that he was lonely and tired, but that he wanted to stay in Basra through Aug. 15 to see whether Iraq’s Parliament would approve a new constitution and whether that would affect the south.”
In his interview with Frontpage, Vincent described a Shia woman named Nour — whose last name he could not reveal because her life was under threat by religious extremists — as “the embodiment of what liberated Iraq could become.” (Whether he was referring to the translator accompanying him yesterday when the two were taken has yet to be confirmed.)
Vincent noted that despite “constant harassment by thuggish Iraqi men who thrive on humiliating and intimidating women,” Nour was determined to fight for women’s rights and democracy: “One thousand Nours set loose in Iraq would transform the country overnight; I just pray the one I met survives.”