Marla Ruzicka deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Unlike Paul Wolfowitz or George Tenet, she shouldn’t get it for botching the job in Iraq. No, she ought to receive it for trying damn hard to make America live up to its ideals in Iraq and elsewhere. But the medal would have to be awarded posthumously–because on Saturday, Marla, an irrepressible 28-year-old from California, was killed by a bomb when a suicide bomber, who was apparently trying to strike a US convoy on the highway to Baghdad International Airport, pulled up alongside her car pulled and detonated the explosives. Faiz Ali Salaam, her 43-year-old associate and the father of a two-month-old daughter, was also killed.
I met Marla several years ago. During the early months of the (still unfinished) war in Afghanistan, I became obsessed with the idea of providing compensation for the civilians killed or injured in Afghanistan as the result of the US military action. Few others–in the media, on Capitol Hill, in the foreign policy community–shared my concern, which rose from both a humanitarian sentiment and a sense of national self-interest. If the United States was killing and maiming civilians in Afghanistan to protect ourselves–even if inadvertently–it seemed to me Washington should do whatever it could not to piss off further the people in Afghanistan (and other countries) by ignoring the plight of the noncombatants. Soon after writing about this, I was contacted by Marla. She had been in Kabul, where she had conducted surveys to assess the extent of civilian casualties, and she was now in Washington pressing for US assistance to the families harmed. She had been doing the hard–and dangerous–on-the-ground work.
I was much impressed by her, as were others in Washington. She was a passionate, facts-driven advocate who cared about the individual lives of victims so often kept out of our collective conscience by being described as “collateral damage.” No, she urged, they count, too. As much as our fallen neighbors struck down on September 11. And she meant that quite literally. She argued that these people ought to be counted; their deaths should be recorded by someone, especially since the Bush administration showed a particular disinterest in mounting such calculations or even acknowledging the damage done to civilians. Marla wanted to chronicle the truth and aid the afflicted. She was brave. She was concerned. She was a hero.