Meet Daniel “Danny” Pearl, a golden child of the Jewish-American middle class, with computer-science parents, smart sisters, and a Los Angeles swimming pool; an athlete and musician who first focuses on journalism at Stanford; a gifted reporter who goes from the Berkshire Eagle to The Wall Street Journal and is quickly promoted to London as Middle East correspondent; a lucky man who, in Paris, meets and marries the Dutch-Cuban journalist Mariane (as beautiful as she is articulate and so occasionally distracting here, as if deserving a happier film); the Bombay-based South Asia bureau chief who moves to Pakistan after 9/11 to follow Al Qaeda’s money; the not-yet-a-father who leaves his pregnant wife at home in Karachi while he goes to interview reclusive Sheikh Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani; the victim who, in the glare of media publicity attending his abduction, ceases to be a journalist falsely accused of spying for the CIA and suddenly becomes a Jew falsely accused of spooking for Mossad.
Now meet Ahmed Omar Sheikh, born and raised in England to middle-class parents with Pakistani antecedents; educated at an elite public school followed by the London School of Economics, where he concentrates in applied mathematics and economics; radicalized on a mission to Muslim Bosnia during the Balkan fratricides, where he discovers ethnic cleansing; trained in madrassas and militant camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan; imprisoned for helping to hijack an Indian airliner, later released in a prisoner exchange; happening by accident on Pearl in Rawalpindi, setting him up by offering to broker a meeting with Gilani; unrepentant after old-fashioned police work tracks him down; sentenced to hang in June 2002, which sentence he has appealed, which appeal has yet to be heard after 33 mysterious postponements.
The Journalist and the Jihadi is a painstaking and often even lyrical documentary about the convergence of Danny and Omar at a beheading. Produced and directed by Ahmed A. Jamal and Ramesh Sharma and narrated by Christiane Amanpour, it spends time with Pearl’s widow, his parents, his colleagues at the Journal, FBI and former Pakistani intelligence agents, a know-it-all French intellectual, and an Islamic scholar, Taliban enthusiast, and anti-Semite who is promptly murdered after his interview. The camerawork, from Los Angeles to Paris to Mumbai to Karachi, seems to weep, as if inflected by the anxiety dreams of Danny’s mother. So does the original music by David Heath. And when Mariane tells us that she sees happiness “as an act of resistance,” that her “resistance to bitterness is my resistance to terrorism,” you may not be dry-eyed either.
There is, however, too much Bernard-Henri Lévy in The Journalist and the Jihadi. Yes, BHL—with his hairy chest, mournful mug, basilisk sibilance, and erotic relationship with the TV camera, as if about to lick it like a lollipop—did write a book on the matter. But Who Killed Daniel Pearl? was so moist with sinister meanings it seemed spongy. Questions became insinuations, which then turned into certainties about the Pakistani intelligence services, the terrorist money trail, and nuclear-weapons secrets. Nor was the Parisian New Philosopher much impressed by South Asia or Islamic culture. One even suspected him of condescension.
On the other hand, The Journalist and the Jihadi mercifully omits the videotape of Daniel Pearl’s beheading. Those of us who sought out such atrocity footage when it was posted on the Internet are sorry we did so. At least I am. It ought to have been enough to know that such a shameless witness actually existed, such a gleeful self-righteousness, such performance death. The documentary is more useful when it suggests that the hostage Pearl was sold by his original kidnappers, for $50,000, to an Arab gang wishing to make a statement. And so they did, on camera, in a rhetoric that goes all the way back to the Bronze Age.
And what else do we learn? Nothing for sure about money, nukes, or Pakistani intelligence. But Omar Sheikh’s privileged background reminds us that everything we thought we knew about where terrorist thugs come from and why they feel the way they do is simpleminded, and that the lunatic of one idea flies many flags and diplomas. And the vanished immunity of journalists, which has reached a bull’s-eye endgame in Baghdad, should make us stare at the disappearance of such immunity everywhere, from hospitals to embassies to ambulances to elementary schools, as if the hijacking of passenger planes and ocean liners, the routine bombing of civilian targets, the routine torture of prisoners of war and the routine murder of children by land mines and suicide bombers had all been authorized by God’s word in our ear. There is no safety, nor is there any scruple, and maybe the two were always related.
In 2002, France’s Bernard-Henri Lévy made a splash with Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, a mash-up of fact and speculation in a subgenre he dubbed “the investigative novel.” But his wasn’t the most scandalous French conspiracy-minded book to come out about the war on terror—that would be Thierry Meyssan’s 9/11: The Big Lie, which argued that rogue U.S. officials carried out the 9/11 attacks via cruise missiles and remote control. Meyssan’s research didn’t involve actually visiting the U.S., but his book set a record for first-month sales in France, stealing the honor away from the work of another écrivain provocateur—Sex, by Madonna.
The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl
HBO. Premieres Tuesday, October 10, 8 p.m.