They did, in all their cowardly bravado, exactly what they claimed they would do.

Tuesday came the news of another horrifying beheading of a U.S. journalist by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group and major combatant in Syria’s civil war that has recently captured large swaths of Iraq.  Steven Sotloff, a 31-year-old freelancer for Time magazine and other publications, was executed in a second snuff film posted by ISIS online in as many weeks. In it, a masked militant with a British accent stands over the kneeling Sotloff before killing him. “I’m back, Obama,” the fighter says, “and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State.”

He seems to be the same masked man who appeared in a video two weeks ago in which the American journalist James Foley was beheaded—retaliation for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, so the killer said. The militant warned then that Sotloff, who was captured in northern Syria a year ago, would be next. This, despite a plaintive and heart-wrenching plea released last week by Sotloff’s mother, Shirley, who begged the head of ISIS to spare her son’s life.

And ISIS apparently isn’t done. It’s threatening to behead a third hostage–reportedly identified as David Cawthorne Haines, a British citizen– and is holding at least two other Americans captive.

We shouldn’t doubt the group’s intention to do extreme evil and boastfully broadcast it to the rest of the world. These are, after all, the same barbarians who have committed summary mass executions of civilians; crucified—quite literally—Christians and non-Sunni Muslims; rampaged through villages and cities. So why should they suddenly turn into reasonable, rational gentleman-and-professor-types and spare the lives of unarmed journalists who are simply trying to bear witness to a brutal conflict?

The Obama administration has said that ISIS is a cancer that must be cut out; it poses more of a threat to the U.S. than al-Qaeda. Something clearly must be done. Now might be the time to seriously consider arming the rebels who are affiliated with political moderates, an idea that has been kicking around Washington for a while. We’ve hesitated to do so for a couple of reasons: concerns about whom exactly to arm, about whether there are any good guys in this fight; and fear that we might somehow get dragged into yet another Middle Eastern war,

But ever since Foley’s beheading, there have been whispers that the U.S. may start cooperating in some manner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to try to wipe out ISIS. That would be unspeakable folly. The civil war in Syria began as a popular uprising in 2011 against Assad, who has ruled Syria with an iron fist for over a decade. (And his father before him, for almost three decades.) Assad hit back with relentless, pitiless force that ultimately pushed the protests into full-throttled rebellion, splintered along sectarian lines.

In response, the Syrian Air Force filled barrels with TNT and nails and oil and dropped the improvised explosive devices from helicopters—to devastating effect on the civilians below. It exploded Scud missiles in residential neighborhoods. Most horrifically, Assad launched several attacks of chemical weapons. (Which caught the world’s attention; after the U.S. threatened airstrikes, Assad agreed to have the stockpiles destroyed under international supervision.) The number of victims is breathtaking. Close to 200,000 people have been killed in the three-year-old conflict; 6.5 million Syrians are displaced from their homes; three million are living in squalid refugee camps in neighboring countries with little food or water.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, but do we really want to be sleeping, however inadvertently, with Assad? This is a guy who gassed his own citizens. The Obama administration has publicly ruled out any sort of coordinated effort with him to defeat ISIS. But how else could we expand airstrikes from Iraq into Syria? President Obama is correct in carefully trying to choreograph an effect strategy, perhaps one that involves a broad coalition of countries. In a news conference on Wednesday, he said that if the U.S. were to be joined by the international community, it could continue to shrink ISIS’s “sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.” But without building up other rebel forces, taking out ISIS could have the unintended consequence of benefiting Assad.

Sotloff and Foley, with all the courage of their profession, went off to report on a war to overthrow Assad’s tyranny. They died because of it. What sad irony if their legacy is one that helps to strengthen the dictator’s grip on power.

Originally published by Thought Catalog at

It’s telling that the barbarian who beheaded the American journalist James Foley kept his face hidden behind his black headdress.

In what was essentially a gruesome snuff film posted online on Tuesday, the masked man stood over a kneeling Foley in a desert landscape. He said the execution was in retaliation for American airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group that’s a major combatant in Syria’s civil war and of late has captured significant swaths of Iraq. In his cowardice–the essence of any act of terror–Foley’s butcher hid behind the anonymity of his keffiyeh—a stark contrast to the courage represented by reporters like Foley.

Foley was a freelance journalist covering the Syrian civil war for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse when he was abducted on Nov. 22, 2012 by ISIS militants. His family fought endlessly for his release. (On Wednesday, it was reported that the Pentagon launched a commando raid—unsuccessfully–earlier this summer against the terrorists in northern Syria to free Foley and other hostages.) The family’s desperation was understandable. Mainstream Islamic organizations here and abroad have condemned ISIS’s extremism; President Obama accused its militants of having “rampaged across cities and villages, killing unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence.” Foley, sadly, became just another one of its victims.

Reporting on war has always been a dangerous job. And the death of one journalist clearly can’t compare with the deprivation, destruction and wholesale slaughter the people of Iraq and Syria have suffered. But the point is that Foley chose to be in Syria, that he committed himself, regardless of the risk, to turning our eyes to the hardships of its citizens. And it’s a job that daily becomes more deadly. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that the number of journalists killed in the last ten years has jumped 30%, compared with the previous decade. Part of this can be explained by the changing nature of war. Most armed conflicts nowadays are civil wars in developing countries: undisciplined armies battling even more undisciplined insurgents. By the CPJ’s calculations, Syria has become the most dangerous country for reporters; at least 70 have been killed covering the war—which has raged for over three years–and more than 80 kidnapped.

So why should you care if journalists are themselves becoming targets? Because democracy only works with an informed electorate. Without the free flow of information, we risk being reduced to a mob mentality. And that includes information from the rest of the world. The increasing globalization of our society means that what used to be an isolated event—say, the conflict in Ukraine—now affects everything from the New York Stock Exchange index to the cost of our gasoline at the pump.  Knowledge matters.

Collecting and disseminating information: that’s all Foley was trying to do. And he paid for it with his life. As the CPJ said in a statement: “Foley went to Syria to show the plight of the Syrian people, to bear witness to their fight, and in so doing to fight for press freedom.”

As a former foreign correspondent who worked in war zones in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, I take this all very seriously. And personally: my first husband, Dial Torgerson, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, was killed in 1983 while covering the wars in Central America. He and a young freelance photographer, Richard Cross, were driving on a road that straddled the Honduran-Nicaraguan border when their car went over an anti-tank mine. The explosion was tremendous. The force of it shot the car into the air, then split the body in half; the motor, blown out of the chassis, was found a football-field away. Dial and Richard were killed instantly.

I never discovered the identity of their murderers. That they were murdered, however, is indisputable: dozens of vehicles passed along the same desolate stretch of road on that day without setting off the explosives. That’s because the mines were command-detonated; someone with a clear view of the cars had to pull a trigger or push a button. Like Foley’s assassins, they hid behind anonymity in their cowardice. Like Foley’s assassins, they intended to silence their critics through fear and intimidation.

Like Foley’s assassins, they did not succeed–and none of them ever will.

Originally published by Thought Catalog at

If you noticed that the American press—electronic and print—struggled to maintain a semblance of balance in reporting the war between Israel and Gaza, chalk it up to the complexity of the conflict. Moral ambiguity is always a tough one. This was a confrontation marked by stunningly bad leadership on both sides—the same leadership that now intends to sit down for peace talks in Cairo.

Let’s start with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza. Before it began its rocket barrages into Israel last month, Hamas popularity among Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants had plummeted. Unemployment—much of it induced by Israeli and Egyptian blockades of the borders—was hovering at around 50%; Hamas couldn’t pay its 40,000 government workers their salaries; it had lost its main political patrons in Egypt and Syria. Things had gotten so bad that it even agreed to form a new government with its archrival Fatah, the party that controls the West Bank.

Cue the rockets.

For those of you living in tornado-prone areas, think of how your heart races when you hear a siren sound during storm season. Or any siren, for that matter. Now multiply that feeling by 100 or so—and you’ll get a sense of what it was like to be in Israel on the receiving end of those missiles. On July 10, for instance, Hamas launched 197 rockets at Israel; 162 rockets on July 17; 141 rockets on July 30; in just the last 45 minutes preceding the start of Tuesday’s ceasefire, Hamas fired 13 rockets at Israel. By the time the ceasefire took hold, Hamas had shot nearly 3,000 rockets and mortars into Israel.  Miraculously, only three civilians were killed, mostly because of Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system and the prevalence of bomb shelters throughout the country, both public and private. (Another 64 Israeli soldiers died in the ensuing battles.)

Hamas embarked on its deadly fireworks campaign knowing full-well that it would invite a lethal response. How could the Israeli government not hit back? And here’s where the cynical use of war as a tactic is most appalling: hide your fighters and weaponry among the civilian population—in schools, mosques, near hospitals—and you’ve set the scene for a disaster. And disaster it was when Israel’s armed forces let loose. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza killed more than 1,800 people, over 70% of them civilians; injured an estimated 9,800; laid waste to entire neighborhoods; destroyed already-meager infrastructure in the direly impoverished territory. A United Nations official said that the war had had a “catastrophic and tragic impact” on Gaza’s children and that reconstruction would cost billions of dollars.

War, by its very nature, is indiscriminate. This is not to diminish Israel’s culpability for the deaths and horrific destruction wrought. But you only have to look at the results of the unmanned drones that the U.S. has used against terrorists to debunk the myth of “precision” or “pin-point” bombing. The Council on Foreign Relations figures that of the 3,400 or so people we’ve killed over the last 10 years in such strikes, at least 12% were innocent bystanders. (“Collateral damage,” in Pentagon-speak, that bland, actuarial-esque term intended to sanitize the unintended and tragic consequences of such actions.) This, when we were targeting only one or two people and not responding in real time to attacks.

Politicians have used war to divert attention from their own failings since the inception of the city-state. Among the most blatant demonstrations I witnessed as a journalist occurred in Argentina in 1982, when the despised ruling military junta invaded the Falkland Islands. One minute there were almost a million people out in the streets of Buenos Aires, calling for the heads of the generals—and the next thing you knew, the country had invaded the Malvinas (as the Falklands are known in Spanish): a clump of wind-whipped rocks in the South Atlantic, inhabited by about 1,800 English-speaking farmers and 600,000 sheep, which Argentina has been claiming ever since the British occupied them in 1833. This flagrant appeal to nationalism worked–that is, until the British arrived to retake the islands, and young Argentine soldiers began returning home in body bags by the hundreds.

Obviously, this is an extreme example. Hamas—and the Palestinians as a whole—have desperately real and legitimate grievances against Israel (which I’ll get to below). But the concept of employing war as a tactic is the same. And what of the 32 elaborately constructed tunnels, running from Gaza deep into Israeli territory, that Israel’s forces found and destroyed? In all likelihood, they would have been used to devastating effect to launch terror attacks inside Israel. What if Hamas had instead funneled the resources and ingenuity and energy used to create those tunnels into bettering life in Gaza? (Or at least diverted some of the cement to build bomb shelters for its people.)

And yet, and yet. None of this happened in a vacuum. The past several years have brought little but despair for Palestinians: continued Israeli intransigence on curtailing settlements in the occupied West Bank; a peace process, so assiduously pursued by Secretary of State John Kerry, that fell apart earlier this year. The people of Gaza suffered continuous fuel shortages, daily electrical outages, failing sanitation systems and water treatment plants, a collapsing economy. In the absence of hope, the Hamas strikes against Israel seemed like a bold gesture to some Gazans.

The magnificent Israeli writer and peace activist, David Grossman, wrote in a recent New York Times op ed: “,,,,,I ask the leaders of my own country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessors: How could you have wasted the years since the last conflict without initiating dialogue, without even making the slightest gesture toward dialogue with Hamas, without attempting to change our explosive reality? Why, for these past few years, has Israel avoided judicious negotiations with the moderate and more conversable sectors of the Palestinian people—an act that could also have served to pressure Hamas? Why have you ignored, for 12 years, the Arab League initiative that could have enlisted moderate Arab states with the power to impose, perhaps, a compromise on Hamas?” (Grossman speaks with tragic authority; his son, a tank commander, was killed in 2006 in Lebanon in the waning days of the war between Israel and Hezbollah.)

So there you have it: a month-long war, whose inevitability was created by the leaders of one side and set in motion by leaders of the other. And these are the same people who are now going to talk peace.

Where, oh where, are the Nelson Mandelas of the Middle East?

Originally published by Thought Catalog at

It used to be easy to ignore news of the world’s horrors. All those accounts of wars, famines, earthquakes, those pictures of fly-swarmed children with distended bellies, of mothers weeping over open graves — they all happened out there. By the time we saw the photographs and read the stories, they were usually days old. We could justify averting our eyes with the thought that the world had moved on and so, probably, had those people.

Not anymore. In an age of instant information, out there  has emphatically become here; those people are us; their humanity, ours. Now we watch world events unfold in real time. We are all intimately and immediately connected — for better or worse, as I have come to learn.

As a teenager growing up in Detroit in the early 1970s, I couldn’t wait to leave home. My parents were in the midst of a messy divorce; I wanted nothing to do with their muddled lives. Throughout high school, I worked in a bakery on most afternoons and weekends. While my peers were experimenting with drugs and having sex, I was shoveling éclairs into small white cardboard boxes and plotting my escape.

Friends of mine, a couple of years older and wise in these things, told me about how you could live and study on a kibbutz in Israel for free in exchange for work. You just had to get there. They shoved copies of  O, Jerusalem and Exodus my way, and these romantic renderings of history seized my imagination and inflamed my wanderlust. I sped through my classes, piling on extra credits and arguing with the principal about letting me graduate early. He finally agreed that I could leave a year ahead of schedule.

The dark-eyed official at the Israeli Embassy didn’t seem to notice that I wasn’t even close to the required age of 18. The next opening on a kibbutz ulpan  (work/study program) is here, he said, pointing to a small speck on a map of Israel. Upper Galilee, near the Golan Heights, he said. Very beautiful.

I said: I’ll take it.

Like it was the last car left on the lot.

Despite my parents’ vehement opposition, I bought an airplane ticket with my bakery money and went. The geography of the place awed me. Beyond the kibbutz’s eastern boundary, the terrain snaked steeply down to the now not-so-mighty Jordan River, then up to the Golan Heights, snaggle-toothed against the heat-hazed sky. Mount Hermon, of biblical renown, loomed moodily to the north. Damascus lay just over the horizon. I couldn’t have been happier.

Yom Kippur, 1973, I awoke to a khamsin, the suffocatingly hot wind that blasts in from the Arabian desert. Khamsin is the Arabic word for 50: the wind supposedly blows sporadically for 50 days. It drives people to madness. Legend has it that during the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey ruled that part of the world, a man couldn’t be held responsible for killing his wife during a khamsin. (Those Ottoman women must have trembled at every breeze.) A few hours later, massive explosions shattered the echo-quiet of the holiest day of the Jewish year. The Syrians breached the border and bombed the Golan Heights; in the south, the Egyptians crossed into Sinai.

Israel was at war.

That night, lying on my back on a wooden bunk in a bomb shelter deep underground, I watched the sleeve on my shirt fluttering, as if in a strong wind, from the concussion of the artillery above. I watched for hours, fascinated, unable to sleep for the noise and the excitement. This is how it would be for the duration of the three-week war.

Nights we hunkered outside the shelters until it was time to sleep, listening to static-swooshed reports of the BBC from London. Days, we popped up above ground for air, meerkats-from-our-burrows, during lulls in the fighting. Pairs of Israeli Mirage jets screamed low over the Galilee and into the Golan, the earth quaking as they dropped their load of bombs and screeched back overhead to base. Of course I understood, in an abstract sort of way, that people were dying. But my solipsistic and immortal teenaged self was thrilled to be at the center of world events.

My parents obviously did not feel likewise. My mother had a rather fuzzy concept of geography and was thus spared instantly understanding how close the Syrian soldiers were to my kibbutz. She followed the war’s progress through stories in the Detroit News which, given that it didn’t have a Middle East bureau, relied mostly on wire- service stories or pieces from the New York Times and Washington Post wires — accounts that were at least day-old by the time she read them. Television news was only slightly less stale; film had to be physically transported to a relay station outside the region, rendering it several hours old at best.

My father, who had moved to London after his divorce, did manage to contact me. (This, after calling the U.S. Consulate and demanding that the Pentagon send a military transport to evacuate his daughter.) It’s quaint now to think of how we managed to talk. One night a runner from the kibbutz’s communications bunker appeared in my shelter to say there was a telephone call for Lynda Schuster. Bemused, I followed him into the total blackout, stumbling along blindly, the thwump, thwump, thwump of cannons at my back. My heart was making almost as much noise as the guns.

“Here,” came the command in the darkness. A light suddenly illuminated an open doorway, and I followed the runner down the stairs to a bank of telephones.

I said: “Hello?”

“Lynda, this is your father. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. We’re in bomb shelters.”

“You have no idea how worried I’ve been.”

“Dad, I’m fine. Really. It was just a little scary to come out and take this call. I can’t believe you got through.”

“I’ve been trying for days. Lynda, you should come to London.”

“I can’t, Dad. There’s really no way out of here. And the roads aren’t safe.”

“Well, then don’t leave your bomb shelter.”

“I won’t as long as I don’t have to take any calls.”

Fast forward a few decades. My teenaged daughter wants to go to Israel for the summer with her youth group. This doesn’t seem an opportune moment in which to embark on tourism there; the neighborhood is restive. The Syrian government is — quite literally — slaughtering its own citizens; Iraq, fracturing along sectarian lines; Iran, engaged in its nuclear kabuki dance. Seen through the prism of parenthood, an adolescent foray such as this – such as mine —  seems a thing of folly and peril.

My daughter says: You, of all people, should understand.

Somewhere along the way into adulthood, I — like many adults — lost the hot-breathed urgency of youthful experience, that almost overwhelming drive to discover the world. I recognize it again, the shock and pleasure of seeing an old friend, in my daughter’s gaze past the door to departure. There is one difference now: instant communication. Unlike my parents, who had scant and tardy resources to rely on for news of me and the rest of the world, I am awash in electronically imparted information. I cling to this idea. It is like a totem: having instant knowledge of what is happening in the world will somehow empower me to keep her safe. Magical thinking, I know, but still comforting. This, and the fact that unlike me, she will be on a tightly controlled and supervised program in which even blowing her nose will have to be scheduled.

So some might say it was karmic justice that just after she and her comrades arrived in Jerusalem, rioting started in the eastern part of the city. Palestinian youths were protesting the murder of an Arab teenager, who had been killed apparently to avenge the murders of three Israeli youths. My daughter was able to text me her whereabouts in the western half of Jerusalem — nowhere near the clashes — and that provided a modicum of reassurance.

Then Hamas started shooting rockets from Gaza into Israel. And the Israeli air force began hitting Gaza with air strikes. My daughter and her group were in the southern part of the country; just as they were about to embark on a desert hike, a rocket exploded in the vicinity. I knew this because I had started checking news sites. Quick, frantic text to her; quick text back to me: the southern part of trip was being postponed; they were being moved to the north, ostensibly out of rocket range.

I have since become a crazed news junkie. I downloaded alerts from the New York Times, Washington Post, wire services, Israeli newspapers, Al Jazeera. My phone now sports an app that tells me, in real time, where rockets are hitting in Israel. It features an insistent, hairs-raised-on-the-back-of-the-neck alarm that I can turn on if I want to make myself truly crazy. That’s how I knew the other night that rockets were fired from Lebanon at the area in the north where the kids had been moved. Panicked, I texted my daughter, who was staying in a youth hostel. She answered:

There was just a code red (siren) here We ran to the kitchen where we still are

Why the kitchen?

No windows

Are your counselors with you?

Yeah. Did the rocket get intercepted?

Can’t tell. How are you doing?

Okay I’m shaking.

Her messages then ceased — and I, along with about a hundred other frantic parents, bombarded the program’s director with phone calls and texts. 45 minutes later, I received the following message from my daughter:

Sorry we were in the bomb shelter and there wasn’t wifi. We’re back now

Do you want to come home?


What I’m experiencing obviously pales in comparison with the terror felt by Israelis and Palestinians. My daughter and her comrades were moved the next day to a part of the country that has been free from rocket attacks. The kids all want to stay in Israel; the directors of their program are keeping them out of harm’s way.

But it’s telling that all this instant information I presumed would be a comfort is making me feel much, much worse. Of course, I could stop compulsively clicking onto news sites and turn off the apps and alerts and alarms and bells and whistles. And I do  —occasionally. Chances are my daughter and her buddies are going to be fine, so do I truly need to know — in real time — that a rocket is going off? My mother had no idea of the magnitude of the danger I faced during the first few days of the Yom Kippur War. Even if she had, what could she have done?

Here’s a heretical thought: a little bit of ignorance might, at times, be bliss.


Originally published by Thought Catalog at

The king of Saudi Arabia made a momentous proclamation not long ago: women will be granted, for the first time, the right to vote and run in future municipal elections. This, in a country that practices a strict separation of the sexes, prohibits women from driving, requires them to have a male chaperon for most public excursions. Given that the next election cycle is almost four years away, this could just be a sop to activists. They have been demanding–against the backdrop of the Arab Spring’s dramatic political upheavals– more rights for women, along with a more equitable and representative form of government. Saudi Arabia suffers from the same repressive regime and sectarian divides that plague most of its Arab brethren. But it has an additional problem, one that also affects the other wealthy oil kingdoms of the Gulf: a split personality.

This duality results from the wealthy elites sending their sons and daughters send off to the West to be educated, where they experience an unprecedented amount of freedom, both intellectual and physical. By the time these students return home, they often have changed greatly. But not their countries. The returnees are thus forced to engage in extreme forms of subterfuge to continue living their newly expanded lives. I got to experience this bizarre double-existence firsthand while reporting in Kuwait, courtesy of a businessman who invited me to his “farm” for the weekend.

On Friday, the day of rest in Islam, I was picked up at my hotel in a Mercedes limousine and driven about an hour outside Kuwait City, along the sea coast. The “farm” turned out to be a beach house set far back from the road, among the sand dunes. The businessman, a quiet Standford graduate, had always received me in his office in the capital dressed in a dishdasha, the traditional long white robe, and ghutra, Arab headdress. On that day he greeted me adorned in the tiniest of swimming thongs. His wife, cocktail in hand, sported the type of bikini whose minuscule bottom Brazilians refer to as “dental floss.” Rock music blasted throughout the house and grounds. Their three children raced all-terrain vehicles on the sand, screaming as they flew across the dunes. Similarly and scantily clad neighbors drifted in from nearby compounds.

The drinking and dancing and raucous conversation continued throughout the afternoon until suddenly,  at sunset, the music stopped and my host disappeared into the recesses of his house. He returned dressed in his dishasha and ghutra.  Everything about him had reverted to his former self: his countenance, speech, demeanor, even the pace at which he walked.  The picture of the traditional Kuwaiti, he was now ready for the ride back to the capital–and to his other, work-week life: subdued, segregated by sex, tee-totalling.

The contrast between his two lives was stunning. I have often wondered since about the toll it takes. Imagine having to subvert part of yourself for most of the time, able only to express it–if at all–secreted away. (Gay life before the advent of Stonewall? Gay life in the U.S. military before the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? ) This privation obviously can’t compare with the  life-and-death struggles for basic human rights that are occurring in Syria and that were hard-won in Egypt and Libya, among others. It’s just another facet. Or a metaphor for the lack of self-expression enforced throughout the region. One can only hope that women’s limited participation in Saudi political life–if it truly is allowed to happen–begins to chip away at these barriers.

It has been a sad week for foreign correspondence, what with the deaths of Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin.  Shadid, 43, died last Thursday from an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria for the New York Times. Of Lebanese-American descent, Shadid spent most of his career covering the Middle East for the Associated Press, Boston Globe, Washington Post and the Times. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for his reportage while working for the Post; the Times had nominated him, along with others, for the 2012 Pulitzer in international reporting. In the citation that accompanied the nomination, the Times wrote: “Steeped in Arab political history but also in its culture, Shadid recognized early on that along with the despots, old habits of fear, passivity and despair were being toppled. He brought a poet’s voice, a deep empathy for the ordinary person and an unmatched authority to his passionate dispatches.”

And then Wednesday came news of Marie Colvin’s death, along with photojournalist Remi Ochlik, in Homs, Syria. The two died when their makeshift media center came under the relentless, brutal  shelling by the Syrian government that has killed thousands of unarmed civilians. Colvin, 56, was the consummate war correspondent, having covered conflicts in Iraq, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Kosovo, Chechnya, Zimbabwe, as well as the uprisings in the Arab world in the past year. She wore, quite literally, a constant reminder of the dangers that foreign correspondents face: a black patch over her left eye, which she lost to shrapnel more than a decade ago while covering the war in Sri Lanka between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Clearly, the death of three Western journalists cannot compare with the wholesale slaughter–and this isn’t hyperbole–by the Syrian government of its citizens. But the point is that the three chose to be there. As such, they represented the best of the profession, an unwavering commitment to bear witness regardless of the risks. It is not an easy thing. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that the number of reporters killed in the last ten years has jumped 30%, compared with the previous decade. Part of this can be explained by the fact that most armed conflicts nowadays are civil wars in developing countries: undisciplined armies battling even more undisciplined insurgents. And the danger to those covering the conflicts is certain only to rise. Colvin herself recognized the risks in a speech she gave in 2010, honoring the work of journalists and photographers who died in the line of duty. “It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, ” she said, “because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target.” How ironic her words now seem.

Beyond the obvious physical dangers, there are enormous psychological tolls as well. You always feel a bit dirty–for lack of a better word–parachuting into a war zone to be with the besieged. You live among them for a while: dodging bullets,  sharing the constant fear of death, experiencing the same deprivations of food and water. They open up their hearts to you–and then you leave. You pull out your American (or British or French or German) passport and go back to a place where no one is shooting at you, where the water runs clear and cool from taps, where grocery stores stock thirty-six different brands of cereal. You can’t help but feel relieved. But guilty, too. It’s one of the things that keeps you going back, again and again.

It can make you a little crazy, having one foot in the world of thirty-six types of cereal, the other in places where small children are blown apart by grenades. It makes for journalists who become drunks or action junkies or cut-rate hacks. But it also makes for truly heroic reporters like Shadid and Colvin, reporters driven to tell the world things most people would prefer not to know.

Obviously, every time something like this happens, it strikes a very personal chord. I cannot help but relive the death of my first husband, Dial Torgerson, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, who was killed in 1983 while covering the wars in Central Amercia. I remember at the time wondering whether it was all worth it. We had only been married for ten months; we had a lifetime of togetherness ahead of us. Over the years, I’ve been sustained by the belief that Dial wouldn’t have wanted his life any other way. Surely he would have preferred to live, but the security of playing it safe, of confining himself to some newsroom would, for him–as for Shadid and Colvin–have been no life at all.