A Reporter’s Death


WHEN I emailed Steve Vincent congratulations on his major oped in Sunday’s Times about police corruption in Basra, I never dreamed I’d be writing his obit three days later, when Steve became the first American journalist to be killed for his work in Iraq.

Steve began his piece by talking about the progress of the Iraqi police in Basra, a good many of whom were “switched on” — British slang for gung ho — about supporting their country’s fledgling democracy. But Steve went on to describe the disturbing infiltration of Basra’s police by extremists loyal to Shiite thug Muqtada al Sadr, and the recent string of murders committed in Basra by an unmarked white “death car” filled with off duty police. Now it appears that the death car came for him.

The body of the 49-year old American art critic and political writer was found riddled with bullets, and some members of the Basra police have been courageous enough to charge renegade cops with his murder.

Steve was a complex person and a quintessential New Yorker. “A natural contrarian” in the words of his friend gallerist Becky Smith, he was a political conservative in the left-leaning art world and a former East Village squatter who dressed in suits.

As his friend Steve Mumford put it, “He was an amateur in the 19th century sense of someone who followed his passions, and he became an art critic because he wanted to be yanked off his feet by a work of art. He became disenchanted as the New York art world he knew from the ’80s became increasingly professionalized, and after 9/11 he felt that he had a cause he had to follow. He wasn’t an ideologue, but he believed that the Islamic world had to look within itself. And the possibility of dying in Iraq didn’t deter him one bit.”

He was one of us who believe that the great experiment claiming so many lives in Iraq is the moral hinge on which the world now turns.

Which still leaves endless room for disagreement. On one of the handful of occasions on which I saw him — mainly at political-discussion gatherings at my house — I argued strenuously with Steve for his readiness to believe the worst of Islamic traditions and Shiite theology in particular.

But we shared the American belief that one of the bedrock values of our society is dialogue with complicated people one doesn’t always agree with. Steve wanted Iraq to be a place like that — five or 50 or 500 years from now.

Many of us who were in Iraq in the happier times just after the fall of Saddam were “switched on” about the future, and full of hope that the enormous collective intelligence and steadfastness of the Iraqis we came to know would outweigh the damages of years of bad government. Steve was one of the much smaller number who went back with open eyes even as the situation darkened. He was old and wise enough to know the risks, even if he had a typically American disdain for them.

Earlier this year, Steve closed a catalogue essay on an artist friend with words that seemed unfashionably earnest: “We too will someday step through a door marked “Exit” and embark on another journey. And on that passage we will take nothing with us, save perhaps a faith that the God immanent in the awesome power of nature is also present in the final melting of the heart and the subsequent flight of the soul.” ( “Adam Cvijanovic,” Steven Vincent, Hammer Projects Catalog 2005.)

What tore at this deeply spiritual man in his last months in Basra was the suspicion that so many Iraqis and Americans might have died so that Iraq could take a Taliban-like path back to the Middle Ages. (See Steve’s blog at spencepublishing.typepad.com/in_the_red_zone/ — “In the Red Zone” being his book on Iraq.)

The lesson those of us who cared for Steve and followed his reporting should take away from his death is that we cannot let it be in vain.

If Iraq is ever to be a friendly place for complex idealists like Steve Vincent, as well as simpler people who just want to exercise what we here consider basic freedoms of belief, association and action, Muqtada al Sadr and his ilk have to go. Now.

Ann Marlowe is a New York-based writer

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