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.
Who can doubt that this was a brutal experience? And it would have been rude to ask if she still thought it was brave to "embed with the victims" in a war zone and in a culture where noncombatant journalists are not given a pass, where her reporting cost the life of a government agent, and put the government of Italy in a position where it had little choice but to pay ransom to terrorists.
Anyway, that's how I see it. But neither she nor her supporters share that view. They blame--yes--the U.S. government. After investigating the incident, the U.S. forces reported that the car had been speeding, and sped up further at the roadblock. She says that didn't happen. Sgrena believes that the grunts at the roadblock knew precisely who was in the car and fired because they wanted her dead.
Have you ever wondered where all of those very earnest, comprehensive left-wing conspiracy theories come from? The ones that posit the worst conceivable motives of the U.S. government in even the most trivial sequence of events? Book tours like this are where. An alternative version of events is being established and rehearsed. And it will go out, repeatedly, as it has for the past two years, over alternative radio stations, and in alternative newspapers.
But on this one night, unless I miss my guess, the audience didn't seem to be buying. One middle-aged man, dressed like an academic, asked, "It seems that you are claiming that the U.S. military behaved either with complicity or incompetence. Which is it, do you think?"
There was the nut of it. Sgrena sidled into the answer. "Well," she whined hesitantly, "I don't think it was incompetence. They were high-ranking soldiers." Yes, they were high-ranking members of a New York National Guard company doing thankless night patrol on a rainy airport road in Iraq. Even the stern, far-left interlocutoress, Amy Goodman, felt compelled to ask what motive they might have had.
To summarize the answer: The United States doesn't like negotiations with terrorists. Italy had paid ransom. They must be taught a lesson. (By the way, this rationale cleverly answers the critical question of why the Italian government had not notified its American allies that they were springing their national and heading to the airport that night--behavior that was both incompetent and costly.) As for evidence, Sgrena claimed as fact that 58 bullets w ere fired and a later examination of the vehicle showed that 57 of them were aimed at the passenger seat, and only one at the engine. Which, she feels, "proves" they were trying to get her, and only the sacrifice of the brave Nicola Calipari saved her from the American death squad.
(It is worth noting that a U.S. investigation showed none of this. The Italian government did not accept the investigation report.)
Since we know all too well that "no negotiations with terrorists" has proved a pretty flexible rule for all recent U.S. administrations, it is ludicrous on its face as a reason for the U.S. military to execute a high-ranking intelligence officer of a staunch ally. Much as I respect our military, the case for error--incompetence if you must, or perhaps merely adherence to normal rules of engagement in a hot war--is open and shut.
Because, if 57 shots were, indeed, fired at a targeted passenger, and she is still alive--now that is incompetent indeed.
Lisa Schiffren, a writer living in New York, is a contributor to the Commentary magazine blog, Contentions.