1632: Aris Kindt, Rembrandt subject 1951: The first four of the Martinsville seven

2002: Daniel Pearl

February 1st, 2012 Headsman

“I decapitated with my blessed right hand the head of the American Jew, Daniel Pearl, in the city of Karachi, Pakistan. For those who would like to confirm, there are pictures of me on the Internet holding his head.”

-9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, in a claim made after torture in Guantanamo but nonetheless considered accurate according to a detailed 2011 report on Pearl’s death*

Warning: Although the filming was botched, this execution video still has plenty of gore and a severed head.

On this date in 2002, American hostage Daniel Pearl was executed by his captors in Karachi, Pakistan.

The 38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter had been abducted January 23 by Islamic radicals while pursuing an interview with a (mistakenly) suspected handler of shoe bomber Richard Reid. Instead of being taken to the interview, Pearl was disappeared and held hostage for a variety of implausible demands targeting the United States’ relationship with Pakistan’s military government.

The reporter’s death this day was not confirmed until late February, when his killers released a video on the Internet interspersing images of American and Israeli violence with footage of Pearl speaking — and then, horrifically, of Pearl being beheaded with a knife.** It was the first of several hostage-beheading videos various militants would release in the next few years.

Pearl’s captors drew a direct line from his Jewishness to his murder in the statements they forced him to make:

My name is Daniel Pearl. I am a Jewish American from Encino, California USA … I come from, uh, on my father’s side the family is Zionist … My father’s Jewish, my mother’s Jewish, I’m Jewish … My family follows Judaism. We’ve made numerous family visits to Israel … Back in the town of B’nei Braq there is a street named after my great grandfather Chayim Pearl who is one of the founders of the town.

It was the more startling because Pearl himself was a very secular Jew. Pearl did not set out to be a martyr for his cultural or religious heritage: that identity as the identity was thrust upon him.

And it’s been suggested that it was thrust upon Pearl’s captors as well, whose object in kidnapping an American reporter might have been a much more parochial kidnapping commonplace — publicity, cash — but who became politically boxed in when their hostage was publicized by the media as a “Jewish-American reporter”. One of the emails the captors had pre-drafted actually announced Pearl’s release. It was edited after the kidnapping … to announce Pearl’s execution within 24 hours, as a Mossad agent. Al-Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems to have been summoned from outside the abductors’ circle as a ringer with the captors unsure of how to dispose of their prey.

As an investigative reporter, Pearl’s own work had in some notable instances countered the preferred narratives of American hegemony. For instance, his reporting rubbished American charges that the Khartoum pharmaceutical factory Bill Clinton ordered bombed in 1998 was actually a chemical weapons plant. His work in Kosovo led him to contradict the most bellicose “genocide” allegations from that region’s dirty ethnic war.

He was a star reporter in the prime of his life, a man who poured out words that defined a career and a public persona. From February 1, 2002, suddenly and without justice, that text was torn from his hands. In its place, during the charged months after September 11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan, came a silent Rorschach blot.

Pearl, the Jewish martyr. Pearl, the victim of blowback. Pearl, the journalistic icon. Pearl, the naive liberal in the heart of darkness. Pearl, the mandate for waterboarding and Iraq.

Pearl, the object lesson.

Pearl, the axe for others’ grinding.

Omar Sheikh, a Pakistani militant reportedly linked to Britain’s MI6 and the author of the kidnapping, was arrested within days of Pearl’s murder. He remains imprisoned under sentence of death in Pakistan for the crime.

* Mohammed also claimed that he wanted to kill Pearl personally to “make sure I got the death penalty” if he were eventually arrested.

** Among the many bone-chilling details to emerge from the subsequent investigation, it became clear that the actual murder was not shown — only some quick flashes of re-enacted throat-cutting — because the cameraman missed the shot of the kill.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Famous,Famous Last Words,God,Hostages,Jews,Martyrs,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,USA,Wartime Executions

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One thought on “2002: Daniel Pearl”

  1. Meaghan says:

    At the time this happened, I recall seeing an online poll somewhere suggesting Pearl’s employers were partially responsible for what happened, that they should have known better than to send a Jew into Pakistan. However, I get the impression that if they told Pearl “We’re not sending you in, you’re Jewish and it’s too dangerous” he would have gotten angry and demanded the assignment.

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