July 15, 2004
I've been thinking a lot recently about French philosopher, journalist and filmmaker Bernard-Henri Levy (only in France can philosopher hyphenate with filmmaker).
We had lunch about six months ago. At the time, Levy's English-language edition of "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?"(Melville House), had just been published. The book had received a mixed response for its controversial thesis that Daniel Pearl was murdered because he was on the trail of a larger story, of connections between Pakistani security forces, Pakistan's nuclear establishment and Al Qaeda.
Levy felt that Pearl's murder was "a hinge" moment in modern history. He had spent a year retracing Pearl's steps, reliving and re-imagining his last moments. It was, he said, "the strangest adventure that has ever happened to me."
Levy's book served an important agenda: to make the death of Pearl a subject of discussion and scrutiny, of international importance both as a murder demanding justice and as an international incident with nefarious implications worth investigating.
Today, more than two years since Pearl's murder, the four men convicted in Pakistan of the death await their appeal, and four others who were detained in connection with the crime have yet to be charged.
Nonetheless, since Levy's book, Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan has confessed to 15 years of sharing Pakistan's nuclear secrets with Iran, North Korea and Libya, vindicating Levy's claims. However, Pakistan President Pervez Musharaf, after a private interview, the substance of which has never been made public, pardoned Khan.
Recently, another book of Levy's, "War, Evil and the End of History" (Melville House), was published in English. From May 30 to June 4, 2001, at the behest of the French newspaper, Le Monde, Levy traveled to five of the world's unheralded hot spots: Sri Lanka, Burundi, Colombia, Sudan and Angola. His first-person accounts of "forgotten wars" are chilling.
Levy's goal is simple: to wake us up to human suffering and injustice at a time when Israel and Iraq seem to occupy all the intellectual, emotional and journalistic real estate. We need this now more than ever.
There is a great line in "Control Room," the documentary about the Al Jazeera network, when Hassan Ibrahim, one of their reporters, remarks, "See, the problem with the Middle East is that everything is an Israeli conspiracy -- everything. If a water pipe breaks in the center of Damascus, it will be blamed on the Israelis, instead of blaming it on our incompetence."
Levy asks us not to forget that globalization means that we are charged with bringing the entire world to account, not just those we wish to politicize, demonize or sentimentalize. We must not, Levy writes "be seduced into finding meaning where none exists." In terms of philosophy, he pits Walter Benjamin against Hegel or "dry indignant anger against the consolation of dialetics."
In Sri Lanka, Levy interviews a woman trained to be a suicide bomber -- or as Levy calls them, kamikazes. In Colombia, he meets with government officials, revolutionary leaders (so-called) and coca farmers. In the Sudan, where over the last several years a genocide of Christians has been occurring, he explores the role of oil in the Sudan's vale of destruction.
Perhaps it's a coincidence that Secretary of State Colin Powell has in the last few weeks traveled to a refugee camp in the Sudan and the United Nations has started to threaten sanctions. Consider Levy's call to arms part of the tipping point that made it such that the world could no longer look the other way.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn once opined that writers should be like "a second government." Back when this country was young, Tom Paine wrote that "my country is the world, and my religion is to do good." In the 1960s, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut and William F. Buckley were all part of the national debate. But in truth, it's been a while since we've had men of letters rising to the level of conscience of the nation.
Today, we've passed into an age of punditry. Our opinion makers are for the most part entertainers -- Rush Limbaugh, the Fox crew, Al Franken, Howard Stern. Add multimillionaire populist Michael Moore to the list.
No one can argue with the phenomenal success of "Fahrenheit 9/11." By now, even the most serious of columnists, Tom Freidman, William Safire and Andrew Sullivan, are humming MC Hammer's refrain, "Can't touch this."
This makes a certain amount of sense, given that, as noted in an NEA study released this month, people are reading less. Even our president has admitted that he doesn't read the news.
Conversely, this makes writers like Levy all the more important. Despite our 24/7 TV news channels, the always-on Internet, as well as daily local and national newspapers, the biggest news stories of recent months have appeared in books -- Paul O'Neal's, Richard Clarke's, Bob Woodward's. Talk about old school. At the same time, some of the best reporting about the war in Iraq, including the Abu Gharib prisoner abuse scandal, have been reported by veteran journalist Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker magazine -- yes, The New Yorker -- leaving the newspapers and major networks to spin the information -- commenting rather than breaking the news.
History will repeat itself, if we choose to ignore it. Let me leave the last word to Levy who writes: "We'll have to do what the American soldiers did in 1944 after the liberation of the camps, when they forced the German city dwellers to file past the corpses. Innocent, the ordinary German citizens? Never, ever lent a hand to the crematoriums of Bergen-Belsen? Maybe. If you like. But that's not the question now. The gesture, all the same, of the Americans forcing them just to file by, to look, to keep their eyes open, above all not to go back to sleep. A good metaphor, in short, for the role of intellectuals."
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in L.A. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.