One year ago this morning, I woke up to the news that Steven Vincent, a brave man and a judicious reporter who frequently wrote for NRO, had been murdered in Iraq. That news came via e-mail from his heartbroken wife, Lisa.
Talking to NRO on the anniversary of his murder, Lisa reminds us of her husband’s noble life and death: “he died for what he believed in, that he put his safety and future on the line for the sake of reporting important stories no other reporters were willing to cover, that he went far beneath the surface to try and expose the realities in a part of Iraq that no one else was writing from.” Lisa also focuses us through her pain. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s the most important lesson from Steven’s life and murder you’d like people to remember?
Lisa Ramaci Vincent: First and foremost, I want Steven to be remembered as the dedicated and courageous man that he was. I do not want him to be forgotten in the ongoing sweep of history, reduced to a footnote or a brief mention in articles about the war in Iraq. I hope people will remember that he died for what he believed in, that he put his safety and future on the line for the sake of reporting important stories no other reporters were willing to cover, that he went far beneath the surface to try and expose the realities in a part of Iraq that no one else was writing from.
And I want people — especially those who constitute the apologists for “the insurgency” — to remember that my husband, a brilliant, literate, compassionate, caring, decent, kind, deeply loved and loving man, who accomplished a great deal with his life, was poised to accomplish even more and had so much to offer and to give, was kidnapped, beaten, and murdered by a gang of brutal thugs who probably never read a book in their pathetic lives other than the Koran, thugs who kill indiscriminately for a living and thus make a daily mockery of the fatuous claim that Islam is “a religion of peace and tolerance.” Steven is dead while they walk free, having no conception of, nor caring, what they took from the world, from my life, from the lives of his family and friends. These are the kind of men who would be in charge if the United States pulled out of Iraq; these are the monsters we would be abandoning the Iraqi people who hoped for peace and democracy to.
Finally, I want them to remember that I am, and will ever be, proud of Steven, proud to have been his partner and wife for 23 years, proud he had the courage of his convictions, and that at the age of 46 he completely reinvented himself so he could follow his heart. A more unique and astonishing man I will never meet, and it was a privilege and a blessing to have been able to share what time with him I did have.
Lopez: Do those who want to “cut and run” infuriate you?
Vincent: I would not say infuriate so much as disgust, appall, and puzzle me. Whether we like it or not, the fact is that we went into Iraq and ripped the lid off a Pandora’s box, and it is up to us to deal with the continuing fallout. What kind of message would it send to the world if we left without cleaning up the mess we unintentionally helped to create? What kind of democracy would we be leaving behind? How could we ever be taken seriously again as an arbiter of world affairs? No, we must stick this out, knowing there will be more sacrifice, loss, pain and tears to come, as America and her allies battle for what most people know are extremely high stakes. Hopefully they also know that the alternative would be too terrible to even contemplate.
Lopez: Do you find yourself watching and reading news about Iraq and the war on terror through Steven’s eyes?
Vincent: To be honest, since his murder it is exceedingly difficult for me to read or see news stories about Iraq. But yes, when I do, I try and imagine what Steven’s reactions would have been. Since we were so alike politically, I know they would not have verged much from my own. And so I know he would be deeply saddened by what is happening there — the mind-numbingly brutal Sunni-Shia violence which seems to presage an incipient civil war, if indeed one is not already being waged; the inability or unwillingness of the government and new military forces to clamp down on the militias; the unchecked rise to power of Moqtada al Sadr; the continuing use of the police force to terrorize and kill the very civilians it has sworn to protect; the unchanging hardships of daily life sans electricity, clean water, plentiful gasoline, security. His — our — hopes for Iraq have been dashed, at least for now, but it is my fervent prayer that someday, all he hoped for and more will come to pass. That would be a fitting memorial and testament to him, as well as to all those who have given their lives, or will do so in the future, in an attempt to turn Iraq into a viable, stable democracy, be they soldiers or civilians caught up in the madness of a suicide bombing.
Lopez: You’ve done this before, but can I bother you again to explain the relationship between Nour, his translator, and Steven?
Vincent: I will be frank. Steven loved Nour. Please note that I did not say he was in love with her. I see and understand the difference, even though a few supposedly intelligent journalists and bloggers (Juan Cole comes to mind) seemed utterly capable of comprehending that distinction and wrote some truly vicious things about their relationship, as well as mine and Steven’s. But the reality is that Steven and Nour’s friendship and working relationship has been badly misconstrued, with certain elements in the media (most notably the liberal British press) suggesting that his death was an “honor killing.” But I knew my husband better than anyone, and know that he would not have betrayed me and put Nour’s life in jeopardy by having an affair with her. Even had he wanted to it was physically impossible for him to do so — he was in a public hotel, while Nour was living with her family. They were never alone, never in a private place, always on the street, in a cab, in someone’s office or house, so there was no way he could have even snatched a kiss. And Nour, well knowing the consequences if she were to be found having an affair, was even more sensitive to appearances than he was. He told me in one phone call that he had bought some bananas from a street vendor and tried to give her one; she refused to take it, fearing how it might look, that it might be taken as a sign of an intimacy between them that did not exist.
The problem was that the amount of time they spent together, no matter how innocent, had set tongues wagging, as had Steven’s increasingly probing questions as he began to discover the dark underside to the supposedly peaceful city of Basra. I know now he and Nour went places they should not have, met people they should not have, asked things they should not have. In so doing, they put themselves on a radar screen it would have been better they not been on. Steven mentioned to me, not long before his death, that he had begun getting a lot of “hang-ups” and “wrong numbers” on his cell phone, and both he and Nour were approached separately on the street; Nour was asked why she was helping the American who was asking all the questions, Steven was told bluntly that Nour’s life would not be worth a plugged dinar once he left. It was that remark that made him call me at 3 A.M. to try and figure out what to do; he and I jointly came up with the idea to spirit her out of the country somehow and get her to a safe location. He approached her family about it, who were receptive to the idea, hence negating the honor-killing theory, but also spawning the “Steven Vincent was a horn dog who couldn’t keep it in his pants and that’s why he got killed” school of malicious thought.
But I reiterate — they were friends. Dear friends, workmates, colleagues. Steven respected Nour deeply — her intelligence, her passion for politics, her fearlessness; as he mentioned more than once, he had never met a Muslim woman like her. Plus, she was invaluable to him in terms of helping him research his book about the history of Basra, which is why he went back that third time, and had constituted herself his guide, fixer, translator, protector. But even she, as smart and streetwise as she was, could not protect him from being snatched that day. I have learned that when they took him, his kidnappers could not have cared less about her; she was not a target. But she made herself one by intruding in their efforts to get him into the police truck, so they finally took her, too. I have no doubt they intended to kill her; luckily, they did not succeed. And as selfish as it might sound for me to say, I thank God regularly she was brave enough to do what she did, because it meant that, in the final hours of his life, Steven was not alone with his tormentors; he had a friend nearby. Cold comfort, yes, but better than none….
Lopez: Have you personally had contact with Nour?
Vincent: Yes. She and I have been in contact since last November via e-mail and phone. I have been trying various avenues to get her out of the region; each one that seemed promising has ultimately wound up a dead-end. I am now working with a visa lawyer who spent time in the State Department working on Middle Eastern affairs, but it’s a slow and tortuous process. I was able to help get her out of Iraq, at least (although for her security I cannot say where she is), so that’s one less worry, although the specter of her possibly having to return looms constantly over both of us.
Lopez: You had wanted to write a book based on Steven’s final notes. Did you ever get them – and his laptop?
Vincent: I did receive the laptop, but still await his notebooks. I have been told they will be copied and returned to me at some point in the future, but no one is saying exactly when.
Lopez: What’s the most important lesson you learned from Steven’s time in Iraq?
Vincent: That even though I deeply love and miss him, and will spend the rest of my life regretting he went back to Iraq that last time and was lost to me, there is no way I could have prevented him going, I had to let him do what he needed and wanted to. He was drawn to go back, driven to, and although his death shattered me, I could not have stood in the way of him doing so, nor would I have wanted to. So I guess what I learned is that people must do what they must do, and the consequences that befall are a necessary evil in the equation.
Lopez: What’s the coolest thing you learned about Steven and his work in Iraq after he died?
Vincent: I would say by far the most wonderful, and indeed humbling thing that I learned about Steven and his work in Iraq was the respect and even awe with which he was — and still is — regarded by his fellow journalists. I have spoken to a number of them, and they all say the same thing — he was an amazing man, passionate, fearless, thorough, a consummate professional. I had one reporter tell me, after a short stay in Basra, “I don’t know how Steven did it. I was there for a week and couldn’t wait to get out. A more dangerous, brutal place I have never been in — and he spent three months there.” So many of his fellow journalists have paid me so many heartfelt compliments about him, his blog, his work, his life and death, and those testimonials mean more to me than anyone can possibly realize or imagine. Steven would have been so honored to know these things, but I must be honored in his stead. And I am.
Lopez: As if losing your husband wasn’t enough for one year, you’ve been handed a bad health diagnosis. How is that going? How are you feeling?
Vincent: Yes, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in May and had surgery in June. I knew this was something I’d get at some point — women on both sides of my family have had it, including my mother — but did not know it would be so soon. I am convinced the stress of Steven’s horrific abduction and assassination triggered something that would have shown up sooner or later, but manifested itself 8 months after his death and 12 months after my last clean checkup.
I am having some extra tests done so am still awaiting a course of treatment, but whatever I wind up having to do will not be until September. And as far as how I’m feeling, well, all I can say is, I’m still numb from Steven’s absence from my life, so I don’t think I felt it as much as I would have had he still been alive. But I can only regard it as yet another speed bump on my journey, you know? Just something else to be endured, gotten through and gotten over.
Lopez: The fifth anniversary of 9/11 is approaching next month. Is it hard to believe it was that long ago? Isn’t 9/11 what nudged Steven to go off to Iraq?
Vincent: Yes, it’s very hard to believe it has been almost five years. I still vividly remember being at work, on the phone with Steven, who was watching the entire thing from the roof of our building, and hearing him scream, “Oh my God, the first tower fell!,” and later, when the second one collapsed, saying to me through his tears, “Lisa, the World Trade Center is gone. It’s gone.”
And yes, it was that event — seeing the second plane crash into the second tower, watching people fling themselves to their deaths from hundreds of feet in the air, watching as two of the tallest buildings in the world vanished in a roaring cataclysm of dust and flames — that set Steven’s feet on the path towards his repeated trips to Iraq and his ultimate destiny. So in a way I guess you could say I am a 9/11 widow, albeit obliquely. Because had it not been for the destruction of the Twin Towers, my husband would be alive and with me and in this world still.
Lopez: What would you have Americans remember on this painful anniversary for you and the upcoming 9/11 anniversary?
Vincent: For myself, I would just ask that anyone who is so inclined please say a prayer for Steven and keep him in their memory.
For the fifth anniversary of 9/11, well, first and foremost I would like them to remember, be grateful to and say a quick prayer — “Thank you,” “God bless,” whatever — for our troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then I would like them to detach themselves from their iPods, put down their Game Boys, pull their SUVs over to the side of the road, and stop obsessing about BritneyTomKatStarJonesWhereisSuriBrangelinaAmericanIdol long enough to spare a moment to recall 3,000 of their fellow citizens whose lives were brutally ended by a group of Islamic madmen. Next, a thought for the journalists, photographers, stringers, fixers, and assorted freelancers who put their lives on the line on a daily basis to try and bring us the news with our morning coffee. Finally, a remembrance that no matter what, this is the greatest country in the world, and we should thank God we are lucky enough to live in it. To those decrying America, take a long look at the hordes of would-be immigrants who, desperate for better lives, risk theirs daily to try and get here. What do they see in this country that you, spoiled children of privilege, do not?
Lopez: Thanks and God bless you, Lisa.
Vincent: Thank you, Kathryn — and my thanks and sincere appreciation to everyone who reads this and remembers Steven. I am grateful; I know he would be, too.