Steven Vincent, insightful war reporter, murdered in Iraq ten years ago

It has been ten years since freelance journalist Steven Vincent, an idealistic war reporter and former art critic, was kidnapped and murdered in Basra, Iraq, as an upsurge in violence bedeviled the U.S.-led occupation. His translator Nour al-Khal -- an aspiring young poet whom Vincent saw as the representative of a more modern Middle East -- was shot and left for dead.

The crime remains unsolved, though rogue Iraqi policeman associated with Iranian-backed Shiite militias were suspected of targeting Vincent -- possibly over a provocative op-ed, “Switched off in Basra,” that the freelance journalist had published in The New York Times two days earlier. It warned that British occupation forces were ignoring militias that were infiltrating Basra's police department and terrorizing the local populace with their religious zealotry. The previous January, conservative Shiite parties had come to power in local elections.

 Photo credit: Mark McQueen for Spence Publications

Vincent, then 49, was the only American journalist murdered during the occupation. Ten years after his death on August 2, 2005, his life and journalistic legacy are worth remembering as the Middle East is engulfed in the chaos that he saw coming.

Vincent's most interesting work was for his personal blog “In the Red Zone” and in articles for two conservative publications: National Review Online and FrontPage magazine. He had a devoted following, and on return trips to the U.S. gave a few radio and television interviews, and also participated in a seminar at San Jose State University in California. Known for his sharp analysis and moral clarity, Vincent had even “caught the attention of the White House,” recalled a former adviser to President George W. Bush and member of his National Security Council.

Bush's reading list included Vincent's 2004 book “In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq,” said the former official, who asked not to be named, during a phone interview from Washington. Like many readers of “Red Zone,” Bush read it months after Vincent's death; headlines about Vincent's murder had spurred renewed interest in his book, which had enjoyed respectable sales after being published by a small conservative publisher in Texas. Bush subsequently sent Vincent's widow Lisa Ramaci a hand-written letter praising "In the Red Zone" and offering his condolences.

Vincent was working at home alone the day his life changed: September 11, 2001.

By 8:46 a.m., he was settling into his routine as a senior writer for Art + Auction, a glossy monthly magazine. Suddenly, the roar of a low-flying jet filled his East Village apartment. The sound faded. Vincent forgot about it until the phone rang minutes later, and a frantic neighbor told him to join her on the rooftop: a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, less than three miles away.

“Steven knew immediately it was terrorism,” recalled Ramaci, speaking by phone from the same East Village apartment where she now lives alone. In her bedroom, the 58-year-old antiques appraiser has a small shrine, illuminated by a memorial candle, honoring her late husband.

She added: “It turned out that the plane he heard was American Airlines Flight 11, piloted by Mohamed Atta, who was using 3rd Avenue, less than four blocks from us, as a guide to fly south, and he was only flying about 500 feet above the ground.”

Thus began Vincent's improbable journey. He suddenly saw the art world as irrelevant -- and wanted to be a part of the biggest story of his generation. In a Q&A interview with FrontPage in 2004, he explained, "I figured our enemy was Islamic terrorism -- and I wanted to do my part in the conflict. I'm too old to enlist in the armed services, so I decided to put my writing talents to use." He sometimes called himself a “soldier with a pen.”

A longtime New Yorker who grew up in Sunnyvale, California, Vincent considered himself a moderate Democrat. He hadn't voted for George W. Bush in 2001 yet he saw the “liberation of Iraq” as a blow against “Islamofacism.” To him, the Islamic world was in a civil war pitting modernity against the backward forces that reached America on 9/11. He viewed the U.S.-led invasion as an opportunity to topple a brutal tyrant and remake the Middle East post-9/11. He regarded Saudi Arabia, to be sure, as the “spiritual and financial home of Islamism,” yet he often quoted the saying: “The road to Riyadh leads through Baghdad,” recalled Jonathan Roth, a history professor at San Jose State, who was Vincent's longtime friend.

On his first trips to post-Saddam Iraq in 2003 and 2004, Vincent relied on his wits and lived on a shoestring budget -- forgoing the bodyguards and flak jackets used by news outlets in Baghdad's “Green Zone” where coalition forces provided heavy security. They employed hastily-trained Iraqis as photographers and reporters. Conservative media critics faulted them for failing to provide a balanced picture.

Vincent, on the other hand, reported from the "Red Zone," providing a colorful mix of travelogue, gumshoe reporting, and razor-sharp analysis that presented Iraq in all its pathologies, danger, and promise. His journalism was in the tradition of some of the best reporting of the Vietnam War, a conflict in which a handful of idealistic and prescient journalists went beyond official sources and news conferences -- Saigon's so-called "Five O'Clock Follies" -- and ventured into the field to see the war up close, through the eyes of American soldiers and Vietnamese. Long before it was fashionable, they wrote of that war's self-defeating and atrocity-producing polices: free-fire zones; the use of "body counts" to measure military success; the failure to win "heart and minds" in the countryside. Like them, Vincent eschewed the mainstream media's formulaic reporting -- “If it bleeds, it leads” -- that viewed Iraq through a prism of mounting casualties, suicide bombings, and prisoner abuse scandals. He interviewed Iraqis from all walks of life: shopkeepers, policemen, government officials; those who despised the U.S. presence or were ambivalent, and those truly infected with the idea of an Iraqi democracy.

He also skewered anti-American peace activists who visited during the relatively peaceful interval before the insurgency, and he observed that Iraqis didn't care about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction -- a story that obsessed the media. Vincent would have been amused that WMDs were found all over Iraq, as The New York Times belatedly reported in October, 2014.

Moral Clarity

Above all, Vincent criticized the mainstream media for failing to recognize signs of progress in Iraq and for utilizing morally confusing language -- including terms like "insurgency," "guerrillas" or even "resistance fighters."

Vincent preferred "paramilitaries." He argued that it "evokes images of anonymous right-wing killers terrorizing a populace in the name of a repressive regime -- which is exactly what the fedayeen and jihadists are doing by terrorizing Iraqis with kidnappings, beheadings, and suicide bombings."

Writing in the National Review Online, Vincent expanded on this argument when he framed the fight in Iraq as being similar to America's civil rights struggle. "When gunmen stalk the Iraqi countryside, murdering civilians in the name of 'defending the homeland,' can we not see a modern-day Ku Klux Klan? They, too, were masked; they, too, mounted an 'insurgency'; they, too, sought to reinstate a reactionary regime based on ethnic and religious supremacy.”

And while many "culturally sensitive" reporters were reluctant to criticize Arab culture, Vincent zeroed in on what was fueling the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle, whose nihilistic nature had puzzled many journalists: it was a reflection, Vincent wrote in his book, of the all-consuming quest within Arab culture for "honor" and "self-respect." The fighters "see themselves as tribal warriors engaged in the venerable tradition of honor killings against the biggest tribe of all: America." He faulted the U.S.-led coalition for failing to quickly subdue the Sunni Triangle, which he said allowed tribal groups and the Baath Party to join forces.

Vincent's death, on his third reporting trip, came as the mainstream media was coming under increasing criticism for its war coverage, with much of the criticism revolving around its use of Iraqi reporters and photographers, not to mention its failure to report positive developments. Vincent had been researching his next book on the rise of Shiite fundamentalism. The revelations in his Times op-ed about Britain's see-no-evil occupation forces not only strained relations with Washington but eventually developed into a full-blown political scandal in Britain. Ironically, Vincent had decided to visit Basra on his third trip because there were no Western journalists based there (and he would thus have Basra to himself), and because he felt it would be relatively safe under British occupation.

Yet chaos was mounting all over Iraq, prompting Vincent to grow increasingly uneasy about how the occupation was being managed. “America rid us of one tyrant, only to give us hundreds more in the form of terrorists,” he quoted one man as saying in Umm Qasr, a port city near Kuwait, in an article in National Review. In his book, he elaborated: "Were we wrong in Iraq? Yes, in one major sense, beyond even the shortage of troops, failure to anticipate the Baathist-led insurrection and Abu Ghraib: we did not, and still don't understand the regressive, parasitical, unreasonable presence of tribal Islam -- the black hole in Iraqi and Arab cultures that consumes their best and most positive energies. Because of our blindness, we find ourselves fighting an enemy we do not see, comprehend, or even accurately identify."

He nonetheless argued that much still depended on America's willingness to "stay the course."

Vincent and Nour

Nour, Vincent's translator, had figured prominently into “In The Red Zone." A fluent English speaker in her early 30s, she had worked in Iraq for a large Western non-government organization. On their reporting trips, Vincent and Nour sometimes attracted hard glares -- an experience Vincent described with his characteristic moral clarity as being akin to what an interracial couple would have encountered in the Jim Crow South. The next-to-the-last chapter of “In The Red Zone” was simply titled “Nour.” To Vincent, she was the face of a modern Middle East; a woman who believed in “the promise of America" -- and in this sense, he wrote, she was like many Iraqis. “Short of destroying my marriage, I thought, I would do anything to help this woman,” he related.

Believing his professional relationship with Nour had put her life in danger, Vincent had planned a sham marriage with her to get her out of Iraq -- a plan that had his wife's blessing. The "marriage" never happened. On August 2 in the early evening, Vincent and Nour were snatched off a Basra street by five men who, according to witnesses, were wearing police uniforms and driving a police vehicle. Vincent's op-ed had mentioned that rogue police officers -- whose allegiance was to the mosque, not the state -- had been driving such a "death car." He and Nour fought back. The abductors only wanted Vincent. They kept pushing Nour, shouting at her to get away. But she would not abandon him. So the men took her too.

Bound and gagged, they were taken to an abandoned building. Vincent was badly beaten and even bitten in the leg during the struggle, a medical examiner later reported. They were interrogated about their activities and personal relationship. The abductors later drove them to a Basra street, threw them out, and told them to run. They were shot in the backs. Vincent died instantly. Nour suffered three gunshot wounds.

Interestingly, Vincent had told friends in the weeks before his murder that he'd dug up information that could get him killed. He's been getting hang-up calls on his cell phone. So why would he publish his Times' op-ed while still in Basra? "He didn't want to get scooped," said Vincent's father Charles, a retired manager with the General Services Administration and former lecturer at San Jose State, in a phone interview from Sunnyvale. The reason for his third trip, Mr. Vincent added, was because Steven “felt he had another book in him.” Vincent spent a total of eight months in Iraq.

Though Basra was not as safe as Vincent had anticipated, the big story proved irresistible for him. Vincent was “always a risk taker, recalled Roth. “ He liked excitement, and was drawn to it. In retrospect he was of course overconfident, but in such a situation one tends to be in a bubble, and not see clearly.”

Vincent's funeral was held a little more than two weeks later at Middle Collegiate Church on Second Avenue -- the same church where he and Ramaci had gotten married 13 years earlier after being together for 10 years. It was standing room only. Vincent was a well-known figure in the East Village, having edited a neighborhood newspaper early in his journalism career.  Many from the art world, who'd known Vincent him from Art + Auction, and for a stint covering art for The Wall Street Journal, flew in from all over the country to bid him farewell.

'I hate America'

Ramaci, meanwhile, had not forgotten her husband's pledge. She spent a frustrating 18 months lobbying to bring Nour to America -- a process of bureaucratic red tape, phone calls, meetings, and even an appearance before a Senate committee investigating the plight of Iraqi refugees, whose lives were in danger for supporting coalition forces in the hope of creating a more democratic Iraq. Finally, in June 2007, Nour was allowed into the U.S. as a refugee. After a tearful embrace at the airport, the pair went to visit Vincent's grave in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery. Nour also presented Ramaci with a bloodstained scarf she had worn during the kidnapping. She had pressed it against a wound on Steven's head.

Nour shared Ramaci's apartment for some 15 months as Ramaci helped her adjust to American life. Ironically, the relationship between the pair attracted far more media attention than Vincent's book and journalism ever had. Major newspapers ran big spreads about the two women, who had each loved Vincent in their own ways. Marie Claire, the woman's magazine, ran a long article: “A Different Kind of Love Story.” A movie deal was even discussed.

By all accounts, Nour initially loved her adopted country; and to Ramaci's relief, she eventually stopped wearing her headscarf. But the friendship the pair had enjoyed for 4 1/2 years ended when Nour -- frustrated over the bleak job market after the 2008 financial meltdown -- made a shocking announcement at Manhattan restaurant where she, Ramaci, and journalist Abigail Esman (who had hoped to write a book about the pair) were having dinner.

Ramaci recalled, “While we were having dessert, Nour announced that she hated America, and it was like somebody had stuck a knife in my heart.”

"Lisa's reaction was largely silence," Esman recalled in an email message. "She was obviously profoundly shocked and deeply hurt. Nothing between them was quite the same after that, and soon after, Nour moved out." An email sent to an address provided for Nour was not answered.  Before that evening, the trio has been fast friends. They called themselves “sisters.” Starngely, Nour subsequently told friends that she had never requested Lisa's help.

Friends of Ramaci's who'd met Nour were shocked and baffled. The incident perhaps underscored that America can sometimes only be respected, not loved; or as Roth observed: “Lisa literally brought (Nour) to American single-handedly, and although she should have been grateful, she felt humiliated by this; and this explains her resentment and hatred. Iraqis and Arabs, in general, have this attitude, one that Steven pointed out but could not see in her. I did meet Nour; she was very charming. I see in retrospect how manipulative she is, especially of men. Steve never confided any doubts about Nour to me.” It is an observation that is indeed suggested in “Red Zone” for those who read between the lines.

For her part, Ramaci said that “Nour's inability to find work was highly frustrating, and I think the combination of her outsized expectations and the economic collapse drove her into a dark place.”

Ramaci, of course, has endured a dark place of her own -- living with the knowledge that her late husband's killers remain at large. Who murdered him? The former White House official said it was presumed the killers were associated with one of the many Shiite militias in Basra. Nour had offered to look at photos of Basra's police officers, but Ramaci said that neither the British nor Iraqis were “interested in making that happen.” The case was officially closed in 2007. The FBI had monitored the case and, when asked about the final status of the investigation, an FBI spokesperson issued a statement saying, "While the tragic murder of Steven Vincent has yet to be solved, the FBI stands ready to investigate any additional leads from the public."

“Simply pathetic," Ramaci said, when told of the FBI's response. She over the years gave the FBI many potential leads, she related, including an article from a Middle Eastern publication that named the person thought to be responsible. She doubts any of those leads were checked out. The State Department also declined to undertake any further inquiry, she said.

“The FBI was never interested in pursuing the case," Roth observed, "and the U.S. Government didn't want to make waves." He noted that radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his militia -- who had fought U.S.-led occupation forces -- are now “our ally in fighting Islamic State. Steve's kidnapping was certainly authorized by a high authority, perhaps even Al-Sadr himself; in any case, someone who is now in the Iraqi government. The murderers are hiding in plain sight."