by Austin Bay
December 3, 2003
In a righteous world John Burns of The New York Times would win the Pulitzer Prize in perpetuity. Gifted reporters like Burns revive faith in the craft of ink-stained wretches. His genius for providing the apt cultural and psychological contexts shaping his immediate subject matter means a Burns story is both a nugget of current topical insight and the grist of future history.
He's also one persistent and canny pro with a knack for getting what I call "the second day answers" in single interview. The story spurring this column, "A Conversation on Tiptoes, Wary of Mines" (NY Times, 11/30), is a lesson in journalistic probing supported by personal integrity and a superior knowledge of the facts.
Burns interviewed three men in Amiriya, Iraq, a Sunni town outside Baghdad. Burns noted: "If any village in Iraq should be Saddam country" it's Amiriya.
Burns, however, opened his report with a reminder of a much more pertinent "locale," the lingering Hell created by decades of Saddamite terror. The Iraqis' human walls of careful habits built to survive Baathist oppression are barriers to any genuine political conversation.
"Knowing what ordinary Iraqis thought was never easy for Western reporters when Saddam Hussein bestrode the land," Burns began. "Now his secret police and information ministry minders are gone, but not Mr. Hussein himself. So his terror still radiates among Iraqis, many of whom condition their words and actions against the possibility he may return."
The Amiriyis kicked off with praise for Saddam and diss for America. Saddam was "our king" and will toss the Americans out, etc.
So Burns asked the men if mass graves containing Saddam's Iraqi victims are American lies?
This to-the-gut question told the men that Mr. Burns knew the deadly price of honesty under Saddam and didn't buy their bombast.
The chance to confront the bones challenged, then eroded ingrained fear. The Amiriya 3, after speaking "softly to each other," admitted Saddam was a brute and disaster for Iraq.
Sure, the men continued to rant a bit, but raw truths like these emerged: "...let us be honest here. Whatever we may say to foreigners like you, the truth is that we were never really with Saddam, in our hearts we were always against him." Or: "We will never have peace as long as we must fear Saddam."
Burns concluded with this quote: "...tell the Americans to find us jobs, then everything will begin to improve."
Nuggets? The shift in the interview from defensive propaganda to honest admission is another signal that a mental reconstruction is underway in Iraq, and the Iraqi people are not only aware of their savaged state but know they bear a responsibility for the future. They have to defeat fear. Another: Getting Saddam, the brute himself, is the central US security objective.
This particular Burns' masterpiece has a telling echo for me. "Second day answers" are the replies a writer gets once trust is established and/or your interviewee knows you can't be totally duped. With Samir -call him a Syrian intellectual-- it took me two months to reach the second day.
Samir wasn't an assignment but a fellow student in Germany in the early 1980s. Our first "conversations" consisted of Samir launching anti-American diatribes spiced with Soviet propaganda. Having heard the script before, I peeled (in German with a Texas accent) Syria's Assad regime, calling it a fascist contraption ready to shatter into a dozen vicious Lebanons. While knowledge of Syria's reality impressed him, the morning he wandered in while I was playing the piano changed our personal dynamic. He loved music. We discovered both of us preferred tea to coffee.
In a gausthaus a day before I returned to the States he asked me "How do you do it?" How does America continue to succeed and we Arabs fail? My reply: "You must first off your autocrats."
"But we cannot do that," Samir said, a sad fear jeweling his eyes.
"Then you will continue your long misery," I replied.
John Burns' story indicates there is now an Arab nation with a chance to escape the autocrats' terrifying grip.