Calm Down, Sgrena 

The outlandish tale of the Italian journalist

Thursday, Mar 10 2005
I find it difficult to be at all critical of the unfortunate and brave Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena. After surviving her ordeal — being held prisoner by a group of insurgent beheaders and then getting shot by American troops on her way to the Baghdad airport — she has moral permission to do and say whatever the hell she wants to for the rest of her life.

I know what it is like to be shot at as a reporter — it’s happened to me a half-dozen times. Twenty years ago in El Salvador, a Chilean reporter working right at my side was shot through the throat and bled to death as sheets of gunfire between soldiers and guerrillas kept me and others from rescuing him.

That said, I just can’t buy Sgrena’s suggestion (and the direct accusation by her boyfriend Pier Scolari) that the attack on her car at a U.S. roadblock was somehow a deliberate act by American troops.

It’s doubly hard to criticize Sgrena because I also have an abiding respect for the daily paper she works for — Il Manifesto. But I find it simply shocking that, based on the little information available, Manifesto has been running banner headlines saying the attack on Sgrena’s car, which killed Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari, was a premeditated “assassination.”

The charge put forth by Scolari and Manifesto is that the Americans decided to kill Sgrena because she possessed some sort of bombshell information that will ultimately embarrass the U.S., or that the Americans frowned upon Italy’s negotiating with the kidnappers.

Yet in her first article written since last week’s harrowing escape from Iraq, there is no mention of such revelations. Instead, Sgrena publishes an eerie sort of minijournal, in which — I was surprised to find — there isn’t a single harsh word about her captors, who kept her blindfolded for a month, threatened her with beheading and forced her to sob on video pleading for her release. Stockholm syndrome, some are saying.

I, however, detect a different malaise: an overdose of ideology. Sgrena hated the war in Iraq and was contemptuous of the U.S. occupation, which is her absolute right. Those political judgments, nevertheless, seem to cloud her reasoning about her own circumstances. In her first post-rescue article, she quotes her captors warning her that the Americans might intervene against her. Not a surprise from a group that also believes that Washington, D.C., is personally run by Satan.

Some voices in the Italian press are counseling calm. Perugia University professor of politics Ernesto Galli della Loggia, writing in the prestigious Corriere della Sera, says that the national shock induced by Calipari’s death and Sgrena’s narrow escape has produced “emotions that are prompting people to say and write many things that perhaps in a few days may look overstated, if not embarrassing.”

Galli della Loggia poses several questions about the case. Perhaps the most relevant is when he asks, if Washington was so determined to kill Sgrena, then how did she survive? And why were two Italian witnesses traveling in the same car left alive to bear testimony?

One would also have to believe that ordinary American troops blindly follow orders (from where — the White House?) to shoot up the cars of civilians. Not to mention that this particular car was carrying a ranking intelligence agent from one of the Bush administration’s top European allies.

From plentiful firsthand reports in our own press, we know that American roadblocks in Iraq are dangerous enough without any need to imagine that the U.S. high command is using them to trap and murder foreign journalists.

One does not need to be a supporter of the war or a Bushie sycophant to perceive a greater truth. On the contrary, a hard-nosed critical view of the war reveals a picture of ground-level chaos. A war of ideological mirages and strategic shadows in which it is impossible for U.S. troops to discern between friend and foe. The checkpoints are but a microcosm of the greater war raging in Iraq.

Given the willingness of the insurgents to liberally deploy cars and trucks as weapons of indiscriminate murder, it’s not hard to imagine how nervous American troops view each and every vehicle rumbling down the road as a possible or even probable ticket to the afterlife.

The Baghdad correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, Annia Ciezadlo, has written her own hair-raising account of passing through these same American checkpoints. She describes them as intersections of hysteria and fear, where all involved expect the worst. “A couple of times soldiers have told me at checkpoints that they had just shot somebody,” she wrote on Monday. “They’re not supposed to talk about it, but they do. I think the soldiers really needed to talk about it. They were traumatized by the experience.”

Suggesting, as I do, that the shooting of Sgrena was not deliberate is not a justification of the attack but only an explanation. It is, in turn, a condemnation of the war itself — of conditions created directly by the U.S. wading into a hostile sea and then wondering why it’s getting so badly bitten.

It looks like the greatest consequences of this bloody mishap will be political. The fallout in Italy itself is massive. The rightist government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (which includes neofascists in the Cabinet) is hardly a peacenik drumming circle, but neither is it invulnerable to profound anti-war sentiment among the Italian population.

An astounding 20,000 mourners turned out for the Rome funeral of Italian agent Nicola Calipari earlier this week. This is unimaginable in American terms. Not even a deceased Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts, let alone a government spy, could pull that kind of crowd.

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