With Pearl in a time of hope

I first met Daniel Pearl 10 years ago, in a very different world.

It was different in part because it was Tehran, where women were covered from head to toe and men could be seen on the streets wearing turbans and robes. Secret police asked us questions in hotel rooms, and dissidents were reluctant to speak to us.


But it was also different because, unlike today, things actually seemed to be getting better - not just in Iran but all over the region.

We had both arrived - Danny from London, I from Jerusalem - to cover the May 1997 presidential election in which reformer Mohammad Khatami came from behind to beat the supposed shoo-in candidate of the ruling clerics. Nearly two decades after the Islamic revolution, it was a time of almost giddy excitement. Some women wore their headscarves in a risque manner (wisps of hair showing!), and soccer matches suddenly evolved into impromptu political rallies for freedom. Mr. Khatami himself had been seen reading Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.


Danny was working for The Wall Street Journal, and I was there as a correspondent for Newsday. We shared a translator all week. Each evening after work, we went back to her house, where she immediately peeled off her abaya - the heavy, gray body covering she was required to wear over her street clothes. Her father played the guitar. Danny and I talked Middle East politics most of the week, and although both of us were cautious and a bit skeptical, it was hard not to feel that something extraordinary was happening in that part of the world.

In Jerusalem, where I was stationed, a peace process was under way after nearly 50 years of war. Lebanon, after 15 years of civil war, was beginning to rebuild under Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Gulf countries talked of enfranchising women. Even at the gates of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, an Iranian soldier confided to me, "We don't hate Americans here. But we're not allowed to say that."

A few days ago, I saw A Mighty Heart, the new film about Danny's life and death, and I was struck, not for the first time, by how drastically - and tragically - everything has changed. Iran is back at the top of America's enemies list - and not only is it aggressively cracking down on internal dissent, it is also apparently fast becoming a nuclear power. A meaningful peace between Arabs and Jews seems inconceivable, at least for now, in the wake of the Hamas takeover in Gaza last month. War and chaos have returned to Lebanon, where Mr. Hariri was assassinated in 2005. Danny, of course, is dead too, having been captured, forced to confess his Jewishness before a video camera and, ultimately, beheaded by Islamic militants in Pakistan.

I was also reminded of how, in the months after Danny's death, people continually asked me how he got himself into such a horrible mess. What would possess an American Jew to go to an after-hours meeting in Karachi, Pakistan, with an obviously hostile and possibly dangerous fundamentalist leader?

But I understand why Danny went. While the world was changing around him, he didn't quite recognize it. Sept. 11, 2001, only four months before Danny disappeared, had indeed transformed things - for reporters, for Americans - but it took a while to realize that. Danny was behaving as we had all behaved in the region for years. We hadn't felt terribly threatened.

Before 9/11, the groups that Americans widely considered "terrorist" were wising up: They had young, U.S.-educated spokesmen who were reaching out to the media, speaking our language. Hezbollah's press spokesman had lived in the United States, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on Edgar Allan Poe. Hamas political leaders would invite us into their Gaza living rooms and hint seriously at support for a two-state solution.

Sure, there were killers and rejectionists and crazies, like the old Shiite mullah I met in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon who told me that he'd never met a Jew but that if he did, he'd know it instantly and kill him. We knew that all was not well in the Muslim world, but it felt, somehow, like such people were on the fringes, not in the ascendancy.

As Jews in the Muslim world, Danny and I were careful. I wrote "Christian" in the box marked "religion" on my visa applications. I carried two passports so border control officials would not know I had ever set foot - much less lived - in Israel. But I believed that I was being hyper-careful, and hoped that soon such precautions would not be necessary.


After 9/11, though, things swung in the other direction, and the progress that had seemed slow but somehow inevitable came to a halt. Danny was killed. Correspondents in Baghdad were taken hostage, and even now reporters' movements are restricted.

When I traveled to the region late last year, I arrived during a week when I was told it was simply too dangerous to visit Gaza.

What's clear is that extremism has more sway now than it ever had in the 1990s, thanks not only to the successes of al-Qaida but also to American policies that have radicalized and inflamed the Muslim public. What moral standing we had in the region after 9/11 was squandered in the prison cells of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Danny and I spent another week together about a year after our Iran trip. We were in Kuwait, waiting for visas to Iraq. It was 1998. United Nations weapons inspectors were being barred from Iraq, President Bill Clinton was demanding their return, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was trying to cut a deal. Without visas, we had nothing to do, so we took a trip to the Iraq-Kuwait border.

I remember seeing the fences, the towers and the omnipresent machine guns as we looked across the border into Iraq. Danny talked about how much he wanted to get married. He was thinking about moving back to the United States, he said, because his job was standing in the way of his real life. We talked about Saddam Hussein.

A couple of days later, Danny got a visa and left. He got married the following year and remained abroad. But I never saw him again.


Nicholas Goldberg is editor of the op-ed page and Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times, where this article originally appeared.