In light of the death of his great friend and frequent collaborator Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger reflects on Tim’s legacy and his theories about Middle Eastern turmoil, as well as the role the United States—and all Western democracies—must take to ensure an end to radicalism.
By Sebastian Junger
June 3, 2011
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Last week at the First Presbyterian Church of New York my friends and colleagues and I said good-bye to photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed in combat in Misrata, Libya, a month earlier. My wife and I sat behind Tim’s parents and siblings and watched their shoulders shudder with quiet sobs as people spoke. Tim grew up in England and the family had flown over for the service. Behind us were three journalists who had been in Misrata and miraculously survived the mortar that had landed in their midst killing not only Tim but an American photographer named Chris Hondros and several Libyan rebels. Across the aisle was Idil, Tim’s girlfriend of one year whose parents had emigrated from Somalia.
Tim had been schooled by Jesuits and perhaps as a result had gone through his life profoundly unreligious, so the service was secular. Following a rendition of Schubert’s heartbreaking Trio #2 in E Flat, two reggae musicians played Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and “One Love” between eulogies. I watched the pastor’s eyebrow arch in concern and then appreciation as Marley’s message of human understanding filled the church. Finally four American vets stood up, men from Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne who had been under fire with Tim and me many times in eastern Afghanistan. They filed out of their pew carrying two folded American flags that had been sent by Senator John McCain, himself a veteran of Vietnam. The young men presented my country’s flag to the Hetherington family and then to Idil.
I missed most of that beautiful moment because I was crying too hard, but later I did savor one comforting thought: this may be one of the few countries in the world where a senator would see fit to present the national flag to a woman of Somali origin in honor of an Englishman killed in Libya. Whatever criticisms one might level at our county, we are sometimes capable of including the entire world in our embrace. In the midst of our painful debate about immigration, about war, and about our responsibility to other countries, it is an important thing to remember. It was perhaps one of the reasons that Tim had moved here—to escape what he felt to be the stultifying atmosphere of London.
Tim was 40 years old when he died and had devoted most of his professional life to documenting the human cost of war. On April 20, in a bombed-out section of Misrata, a single mortar shell made him part of the cost. He was hit in the groin with shrapnel and bled out in the back of a pickup truck while a photojournalist he had just met held his hand and tried to keep him awake. Hours earlier, amidst fierce shelling by Qaddafi forces, Tim had sent what was to be his last message on Twitter: In besieged Libyan city of Misurata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.
Although Tim hated war as only someone who has experienced it can, he was also enormously heartened that nato warplanes were bombing Qaddafi forces. In two of the wars he had covered—Sierra Leone and Liberia—peace had come only after Western nations deployed their military might and forced an end to the conflicts. Tim loathed African warmongers like Charles Taylor, but he also loathed the pacifists in England and the United States who sanctimoniously denounced any Western intervention. And so there he was in Misrata, watching the horrific suffering of the civilian population and begging for more nato air power. This might seem like a contradiction to those who don’t fully understand how awful war is.
Tim did not live long enough to see the death of bin Laden, but I know he would have been glad to see another extremist gone. Tim (and I) considered as extremists anyone who sacrificed human life for political gain, no matter whether they were American-backed despots such as Hosni Mubarak—whose regimes have killed and tortured thousands of their own people—or a terrorist such as Osama bin Laden. Fortunately, extremists at both ends of the political spectrum, both our longtime allies and our longtime enemies, finally seem to be on the way out. Tim understood that political repression does not contain Muslim radicalism; it creates it. Support for the Shah of Iran brought us Khomeni; support for the Saudi sheiks brought us bin Laden; support for Mubarak brought us the Muslim Brotherhood. In the end they all helped bring us the tragedy of September 11.
Members of both political parties in this country seem to understand intuitively the connection between repression and terrorism and have come to openly support democratic movements throughout the Middle East. Thank God. Not only are we standing squarely behind our noble principles, but in the long run, I believe, democracy is the only effective way to counter violent Islamic radicalism and make our nation safer. Some people believe the Arab world is not ready for democracy, but I am sure that many of the monarchs of Europe thought the same thing when the American colonists rebelled in 1776. And in a sense he was right: it took us almost a hundred years to get rid of slavery and then another hundred to implement the great social reforms—suffrage, labor laws, civil rights—that have made our country a beacon for the world’s oppressed. We still have work to do, but there is a reason that Pakistanis who despise our government still want to come here to live: in this country they are free, and in theirs they are not.
Here is the tough part, though: pro-democracy rhetoric is all well and good, but at the end of the day only actions count. No one will remember that President Obama supported the Arab Spring if it eventually fails and the region collapses back into the political Dark Ages. If we actively engage these movements with advice, with money, and, when necessary, with military force, then we get a vote in how it all turns out. Specifically in Libya, the idea that we are in a “third war” is patently absurd; with no American soldiers on the ground, our vulnerability is virtually nonexistent and the benefits are very real. Rebels are parading around with the American flag and openly praising our country—a far more convincing rebuttal of bin Laden’s rhetoric than anything the White House press office could ever offer.
Lest we forget, a brief bombing campaign by nato warplanes against Serb forces in Bosnia in 1995 stopped a four-year genocide without the loss of a single nato soldier. Although it was controversial at the time, I’m sure few Americans look back and consider that action to have been a mistake. Perhaps the only leaders who regret the nato action in Bosnia are men like Ratko Mladić, who orchestrated the war in the first place. But Mladić now sits in a prison cell near The Hague awaiting trial. Like Milošević and Karadžić, he will face justice. And one day, God willing, so will the men who murdered Tim and thousands of their fellow Libyans.