View from America: Principles and red lines

When Islamist radicals commit an act of anti-Western terror, what follows is always a given.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
When Islamist radicals commit an act of anti-Western terror, what follows is always a given. Along with the details of the plot comes an almost ritualistic denial that a particular branch of a faith is at the root of the incident. This was the case in the days following the recent attempted terror bombing of Glasgow Airport and the related, foiled car bombings in London, just as it is after virtually every other similar incident. If you listen to or read most of what passes for informed reporting and commentary, it is the willingness of America and Britain to overthrow the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and their unwillingness to see Israel destroyed, that is at the core of Islamist terror, not Islamist ideology. At the heart of this dismaying pattern is a refusal on the part of many Western intellectuals to see the war being waged on the West by Islamists as not only not a real war, but as crimes that are in some way our own fault. It all adds up to a refusal to view the conflict clearly. That explains the ability of pro-Islamist groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations and others to be treated as legitimate voices of a reasonable movement, when they are anything but. YET AS dismaying as the talking heads rationalizing Glasgow or London might be, it is in some ways even more troubling when such attitudes become staples not only of 24-hour cable-news channels, but of popular culture in the form of widely released films. This phenomenon is unfortunately on display in A Mighty Heart, the recently released film about the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl was snatched by al-Qaida in Pakistan while attempting to run down a lead on one of the funders of the 9/11 attacks. His murder was captured on a video distributed by the killers; in it, Pearl spoke of his Jewish identity just before he was brutally beheaded. This kind of incident ought to make it clear that those who see the supposed crimes of the West as comparable to that of the terrorists are wrong. But filmmaker Michael Winterbottom uses it for just that misguided purpose in A Mighty Heart. The buzz about the film centered mostly on the fact that it was produced by actor Brad Pitt and starred Angelina Jolie in the role of Pearl's wife, Mariane, whose memoir is the basis for the movie. Heart is clearly a vehicle for the female half of the celebrity couple. But there's more to this grim and ultimately passionless movie than just shots of the gorgeous Jolie in various attitudes of frustration and grief while she bravely attempts to fake a French accent. Winterbottom, whose previous film The Road to Guantánamo was a cinematic attack on the sometimes imperfect measures taken by the United States to track down and imprison al-Qaida suspects, seized on the fact that Pearl's kidnappers used the existence of that prison as an excuse for their own crime. WINTERBOTTOM begins his film with this point, and then harps on it whenever possible. In an on-line chat on The Washington Post's Web site, he made this explicit when he claimed that al-Qaida members and the CIA were just two sides of the same coin. The Guantánamo film and A Mighty Heart were, Winterbottom wrote, "very similar. Both are stories about people who are victims of increasing violence on both sides. There are extremists on both sides who want to rachet up the levels of violence and hundreds of thousands of people have died because of this." Indeed, anyone who even cooperates with the United States (whose representatives are portrayed unsympathetically in the film) is suspect as well. In one scene, Mariane Pearl castigates her husband's editor at the Journal because it had handed over documentary evidence about al-Qaida to Washington, a point that further serves to undermine the abyss between the victims and the criminals. ABSENT FROM the film is any real sense of who Daniel Pearl was - as a man or a journalist. As Asra Nomani, the Indian journalist who was Marianne's constant companion during the ordeal, wrote in her own scathing Washington Post piece about the film, "Danny had a cameo in his own murder." That's a point Judea Pearl, Daniel's father, also didn't miss. The elder Pearl has spent the years since this tragedy attempting to continue the work of trying to bridge the gap of understanding between cultures that was his son's goal. The Daniel Pearl Foundation he created is committed to interfaith dialogue. But even he was struck by the unmistakable taint of moral equivalence between his son's murderers and the forces opposing them that is seen in the film. IN A PIECE in The New Republic published on July 3, Judea wrote: "I am worried that A Mighty Heart falls into a trap… the paradox of moral equivalence… You can see this in the film's comparison of Danny's abduction with Guantánamo… Drawing a comparison between Danny's murder and the detainment of suspects in Guantánamo is precisely what the killers wanted, as expressed in both their e-mails and the murder video… I am concerned that aspects of his movie will play into the hands of professional obscurers of moral clarity." This point was accentuated, Judea Pearl writes, by the comments of a representative of CAIR at a screening of the film when he drew a similar analogy. That a man such as Judea Pearl, who is so determined to use this tragedy as an inspiration to those who would combat intolerance, would draw such conclusions is telling. As Pearl writes of his idealistic son: "Danny was a champion of dialogue. Yet he also had principles and red lines. He was tolerant, but not mindlessly so." And that is exactly the problem with the film that ultimately trivializes his son's death in this manner. WHILE WE can't ask contemporary films to approach the current war with the same spirit that characterized World War II-era Hollywood, movies like A Mighty Heart show just how far the pendulum has swung in the other direction. A culture that cannot comprehend the difference between terrorists and those who fight them is one that is poorly equipped to prevail in a fight for survival. Daniel Pearl and the other victims of Islamist terror deserve better. Judea Pearl has written that "moral relativism died with Daniel Pearl, in Karachi on Jan. 31, 2002." Sadly, the film that purports to tell the story of that death shows just how wrong he is. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. jtobin@jewishexponent