“It takes courage to die for a cause, but also to live for one.” So wrote Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran, her heartrending memoir of life in Islamist Iran. Unyieldingly modest, Steven Vincent would have questioned the pertinence of that insight to his own circumstances. Yet it aptly captures the legacy of the indomitable journalist who was brutally murdered in southern Iraq this week.
By his own account, memorably conveyed in his 2004 book In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq, Vincent became an early convert to the Bush Doctrine of abetting the cause of democracy in the Middle East. From the roof of his lower Manhattan residence, Vincent watched United Airlines Flight 175 missile into the south tower of the World Trade Center. “At that moment,” Vincent later remembered, “I realized my country was at war — because of the 1993 attack on the Trade Center, I figured our enemy was Islamic terrorism — and I wanted to do my part in the conflict. I’m too old to enlist in the armed services, so I decided to put my writing talents to use.”
Americans — especially supporters of the U.S. efforts in Iraq — were the better for it. First arriving in Iraq in the fall of 2003, Vincent wrote feelingly of the halting steps from decades-long tyranny to modernity and self-government. Any reading of his work calls to mind the classic job description of a journalist: to comfort the oppressed and oppress the comfortable.
The oppressed, in this case, were the victims of Islamist chauvinism, particularly women. Vincent was unsparing in assailing the hard-line Islamic view of women’s roles. In his caustic description, it amounted to treating women as “delivery systems for male heirs.” Equally outrageous to Vincent was the failure of Westerners — not least the scores of self-professed feminists and liberals — to condemn unequivocally the deep-seated misogyny of Muslim countries. His experiences in Iraq, Vincent said, “led me to wonder why the civilized world doesn’t rise up en masse and say enough! We will no longer tolerate the way that Muslim nations in the Middle East treat women!”
The comfortable, conversely, were the Islamist radicals — the reactionary dogmatists who sought to deed liberated Iraq (Vincent insisted on the qualifier) to the rearguard of religious fanaticism. Vincent’s writings bristle with allusions to “Islamofascist hatred and resentment and grandiosity.” Fittingly, his final dispatch, which appeared this weekend in the New York Times and which may well have prompted his murder, sounded one of his consistent themes: the dangerously broad fealty of Basra’s police forces to the city’s Shiite religious parties.
Most stirring of all, perhaps, was Vincent’s eye for the little things — the unremarked though by no means unremarkable snapshots of civilian life in free Iraq. An art critic in his former life, Vincent had a painterly knack for detail. Savor this image, from a report he filed during a January 2004 visit to Baghdad:
Once a rare delicacy — Saddam prohibited many imported foodstuffs — the fruits have flooded the country since liberation and the Iraqis can’t get enough of them. Yesterday, while we were stuck in a traffic jam, my cabbie purchased two from a vendor walking between the immobilized cars. “Once bananas were just a dream,” he laughed, handing me one. “Now, praise God, we can buy them on the street!”
For all his optimism about the course of Iraqi politics, Vincent never flinched from addressing the forces of barbarism wreaking havoc in the country. In a 2004 interview, he described attending a Shiite religious festival bloodily crashed by a squadron of al-Qaeda suicide bombers.
The sight was terrible, as you might imagine — but the thought that a festival commemorating a 1,400 year-old martyrdom had created real martyrs — that the ritualistic blood had become real blood shed by real people whose only crime was to pursue their faith — was too much for me. Shaken and horrified, I cried nearly all the way back to Baghdad.
Vincent harbored no illusions about the speed of democratic progress. “The transition from slave to citizen usually takes generations,” he cautioned. But neither did he doubt that with the right mix of ingredients — the courage of American troops, the determination of Iraqi democrats and reformers, and the steadfastness and good faith of the American people — a free and placid Iraq was well within the realm of possibility. “We didn’t start this fight, but by the grace of God, the power of the U.S. Constitution and the strength of the American people, we will finish it,” he once remarked. Steven Vincent lived and died for that noble cause.