Pity the Region
Fisk arrived in Beirut in 1976, at the age of 29, to report on the year-old civil war. Thirty years later, he is still there. While some of his contemporaries, notably John Bulloch, Kamal Salibi, Jonathan Randal, Ehud Ya'ari and Ze'ev Schiff have produced important accounts of major phases of the Lebanon conflicts, no journalist, or scholar for that matter, can match the breadth, nuance or tenacity of Fisk's meticulous history of Lebanon's fifteen-year civil war, Pity the Nation. Fisk was one of the first reporters to enter Sabra and Shatila, the Beirut camps where, in September 1982, as many as 1,000 Palestinian refugees and displaced Lebanese Muslims were massacred at the hands of Christian militiamen allied with Israel. The atrocities that occurred in the camps left a deep imprint on Fisk's psyche, and he has often recalled those gruesome scenes, emphasizing the integral role that Israeli officials, including then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, played in permitting the killings as well as in the subsequent disappearance of as many as 1,800 Arab, mostly Palestinian, male prisoners, who were turned over to the Christian Phalange. Most have never been seen again. On September 11, 2001, Fisk was on a flight to the United States, and he was putting the final touches on a story revisiting the 1982 massacres.
His eventful career spans two Israeli invasions, the rise and fall of Syrian suzerainty in Lebanon, the eight-year war launched when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the defeat of the Soviet army in Afghanistan, the Algerian civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and, of course, September 11 and its aftermath. During the civil war in Algeria, which erupted in 1992 after the army canceled elections the Islamists were poised to win, Fisk was one of the few reporters writing for an English-language paper to report from the ravaged former French colony, where perhaps 200,000 died at the hands of government forces or Islamist insurgents. His seventy-page chapter encompassing Algeria's victorious revolution to break free of Paris, the accelerating decay of the authoritarian single-party state that emerged in 1962 and the calamitous civil war that raged for most of the 1990s could easily be a fine stand-alone essay on a society nearly eviscerated by violence.
Fisk's writing has always been notable for its graphic depictions of violence. He jerks our heads and forces us to gaze upon disemboweled corpses, decimated families and the anguish of war's victims, as if he wanted to infuse our nostrils with the secondhand stench of death. He has no patience for the Gameboy euphemisms--target-rich environments, collateral damage, surgical strikes--so favored by cable news coverage of America's wars.
Although it is not his intention, Fisk's parade of dreadfully suffering victims can lead to a kind of numbing war porn. "Please stop," I found myself muttering, "you've made your point." He notes that "war is also a vicarious, painful, attractive, unique experience for a journalist. Somehow that narcotic has to be burned off. If it's not, the journalist may well die." Perhaps Fisk is himself addicted to war. I suspect that he needs to feed the habit.
He writes wearing a hairshirt of empathy for the victims of oppression, never more notoriously than when, in 2001, he was nearly murdered by angry Afghans in a war-ravaged village on the border with Pakistan. "If I were an Afghan refugee," Fisk wrote from his hospital bed, "I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find." His adversaries had a field day of schadenfreude. The Wall Street Journal editorialized that he had finally gotten "his due," suggesting that his defense of the attackers was tantamount to absolving mass murderers, particularly the nineteen perpetrators of the September 11 terrorist attacks, of their crimes. Fisk has done nothing of the sort, in fact, and he makes no secret of his loathing of the terrorists responsible for the attacks. But he insists on providing a context for Al Qaeda's atrocities, something that infuriates many people who prefer the convenient simplicity of a black-and-white world. He had the effrontery to suggest that US policy, including its skewed stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict, has something to do with the enmity and distrust that America faces not just in the Middle East but in much of the world:
No, Israel was not to blame for what happened on September 11th, 2001. The culprits were Arabs, not Israelis. But America's failure to act with honour in the Middle East, its promiscuous sale of missiles to those [i.e., the IDF in particular] who use them against civilians, its blithe disregard for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi children under sanctions of which Washington was the principal supporter--all these were intimately related to the society that produced the Arabs who plunged New York into an apocalypse of fire.
Fisk's trenchant criticism of US Middle East policy has doubtless opened doors for him in the region (Osama bin Laden, for one, has praised his objectivity), but it also raises suspicion in the West, especially in the United States. Fisk does not help his case with his often strident prose and intemperate criticism, not to mention the egocentrism that runs through much of his reporting. There is a clear line between acceptable criticism and irresponsible insinuation, and Fisk sometimes crosses it. Consider, for example, his gloss on the bedlam and looting that marked the first days of the occupation of Baghdad, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quipped that "stuff happens," evidently unaware of the occupier's responsibilities under international law. That there was no serious effort to bring the looting to a halt for days--even as the oil ministry was protected by American troops--reflects a level of strategic stupidity that has haunted the United States in Iraq ever since. This is fair game for tough reporting by Fisk and others. Fisk goes on, however, to hint that the looters were organized by some dark force--not Saddam's deposed regime but Iraqis presumably allied with the United States. He asks the conspiracy theorist's "who benefits" question: In whose interest is it for Iraq to be deconstructed, divided, burned, de-historied, destroyed? Like many people in the region that has been his home for the past three decades, Fisk seems to think the United States is capable of anything--anything, that is, except incompetence.