The Human Face of Tragedy

Jill Carroll is no relation to me, yet it seems wrong to say that. I have followed the news of her plight as if she were my daughter, and for the weeks of her imprisonment, I have carried her in my heart. Now the clock is run out on the threat of those who hold her, and by the time you read this she may be dead. Yet, until word is final, hope remains. Meanwhile, what to make of the fate of Jill Carroll?

There is the revelation of the routine nobility of reporters in Iraq, the extreme jeopardy they accept to gather information about the war. Except for them, the world public would depend on the manipulations of interested parties, from the ''coalition" to the Iraqi government to networks of thugs, for all of whom the distinction between propaganda and news matters little. If Pentagon briefers were the only source of knowledge about events in that boiling cauldron, Americans would think it a warm bath. Reckoning with this war is the most urgent duty of US citizenship now, and Jill Carroll epitomizes the heroism of those who make that possible.

If it were not for the disastrous policies of George W. Bush, Jill Carroll would be fine today, but it would be wrong to turn her kidnapping into yet another cudgel with which to bang against the war. The people who took her hostage are depraved, but the contemptible methods of the insurgency must not become the point either. There must be no ''using" Jill Carroll's dilemma as a way of advancing an argument. But its drama, whatever the conclusion, puts a human face on a tragedy that is inevitably abstract for those at some remove.

And what a face. The glimpses we have been shown of this young woman, the snapshots taken in happier times, and even the grim footage provided by her captors, hint at an irresistible depth of personality. One photograph showing a broad smile beneath her darkly veiled head speaks volumes about her respectful ease in a culture that others might find only oppressive. Reports point to her combination of seriousness of purpose, delighted curiosity, and raw courage. The stories she wrote for The Christian Science Monitor revealed a rare sensitivity. Last April 18, for example, Jill Carroll published an account of the death of an American aid worker, a report much noted last week because of similarities to her own situation.

Marla Ruzicka was a Californian, attached to an NGO, attending to the needs of desperate Iraqis. She and her driver were killed when they were caught in a crossfire between a suicidal insurgent and US soldiers. Marla Ruzicka was Jill Carroll's friend, and her story is infused with grief. But the story also takes careful note of Ruzicka's driver, who, in Carroll's account, is no mere anonymous Iraqi functionary, another unnamed fatality. Carroll gives his name, Faiz, hints at his history as an airline pilot, and establishes her own connection with him by noting his work as an interpreter for journalists. To Jill Carroll, the death of this Iraqi man weighed as much as the death of her American friend. If Jill Carroll were filing the report of her own kidnapping two weeks ago, we would know the name of her murdered driver, and his death, too, would have grave importance to us -- because it surely did to her.

What to make of the fate of Jill Carroll? Even if the worst outcome follows, this young writer, with a poignant directness that is as rare as it is precious, has already suggested a way to take it in. Equally, in noting what was special about human rights organizer Marla Ruzicka, she makes clear what is special about herself. She wrote about her dead friend: ''The only thing we can say now is at least she died doing what she wanted, doing what she really, really believed in. If she were still here, she'd be most worried now about her driver's family, and who will take care of all the other Iraqi families she was working with. She would point out, this happens to Iraqis every day, and no one notices or even cares. There are no newspaper articles or investigations into what happens to them. For most of them, there was only Marla."

And also Jill Carroll. Iraqis and Americans are alike in being in her debt. And we are alike in that heaviness of heart, where we still carry her.

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