The Magazine

A Defamation Is Born

Another left-wing Iraq obsession.

Mar 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 27 • By LISA SCHIFFREN
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On February 4, 2005, an Italian journalist named Giuliana Sgrena was captured and held hostage by a group of angry Muslims in Iraq. After a month of none too covert negotiating by the Italian government, she was released to a high-ranking member of the Italian intelligence service. How many Western journalists have been captured and/or killed to date in the Islamic world? The only thing that would make this incident memorable was its macabre ending: As their car sped through the dark to the Baghdad airport, they declined to stop for a U.S. military roadblock, whereupon U.S. soldiers fired, killing the spook, who was sitting in the back seat with Sgrena. She took a bullet to the shoulder.

Now it's two years later. Sgrena has recovered from her injuries and written a book about the experience. Her Friendly Fire: The Remarkable Story of a Journalist Kidnapped in Iraq, Rescued by an Italian Secret Service Agent, and Shot by U.S. Forces has just been published by Haymarket Books, of which you have probably never heard. Describing their mission, the publishers quote the man himself: "As Karl Marx said, 'The philosophers have merely interpreted the world; the point however is to change it.'" As it happens, Sgrena is on the staff of an unapologetically Communist newspaper called Il Manifesto. So now you can guess where this story is going.

Last week, I went to the first stop on Sgrena's book tour at the Judson Memorial Church, on the south side of Washington Square Park, in what used to be picturesque, radical, arty Greenwich Village--but now is merely the campus of New York University. The talk was sponsored by a radical media group called Democracy Now!, which, like Haymarket and Il Manifesto, fiercely opposes the Iraq war and, indeed, pretty much everything else the U.S. government is doing abroad and at home.

The unusually well-lit room was filled with about 125 people--of whom maybe a handful were grad students. The preponderance were middle-aged and older lefties. Looking about, I realized that, even on the liberal Upper West Side, I often go days without seeing a man wearing that hot, balding-with-ponytail look. Of the younger part of the audience, the lion's share were foreign--Europeans and some South Asians.

The introduction included a list of upcoming antiwar events, the highlight of which was a march on the Pentagon. I wanted to ask if they are going to levitate it. For those who want to relive their youth, there are many upcoming music and protest gatherings.

Sgrena, a petite, upper-class ash blond, whose skin is weather-beaten and un-enhanced by cosmetics, speaks English well enough but in a strikingly whiny tone. Still, she managed to get out a fairly straightforward version of her tale. She was in Iraq to cover the American atrocities, especially in Falluja, a city she views as a symbol of "resistance against the occupation." She believes that the embed system that has allowed journalists unprecedented access to the troops and live military action--successful and otherwise--guarantees that journalists empathize with the armed forces. She likes to think of herself as an "embed with the victims." She wrote about it in that highly emotive, personal manner that is popular in European journalism showcasing the evils of the American occupiers.

Then one night Sgrena was captured. She was, she says, very frightened. The "insurgents who kidnapped [her] were not criminals or fundamentalists, although they did pray every day," she said. But "I really don't know who they were." She was willing to credit them with treating her well materially. She got enough food and medicine, and they told her they wouldn't kill her. But she didn't actually believe them. How could she?

Her book well describes the pain, fear, and tedium of powerlessness. She had no pen, paper, or reading material. And her captors forced her to make a video asking the Italian government to pay ransom. For this she was roundly criticized by other journalists, which was also painful. It was a terrible ordeal, by any standard.

Finally, one night, her captors blindfolded her, drove her for a time, and parked. After what seemed like an endless interlude, an Italian Secret Service agent, Nicola Calipari, called out, "I am a friend of your publisher and your husband." He came and sat beside her in the car and told her she was safe, as another agent took the wheel. As she told the audience, "He was really a normal man. I couldn't imagine that he was an intelligence officer."

As they drove to the airport, chatting to the prime minister of Italy on cell phones, there was a sudden light. The driver said, "They are attacking us," and Nicola covered her with his body. When the shooting stopped, Nicola was dying. The car had gone through a U.S. roadblock and been fired upon.