TEL AVIV, Israel — The phone rang at noon and the message was brief: “Is that NBC? Tell Martin to come to a wedding. Tell him to come now. He can be a witness. Goodbye.”
I didn’t rush out to buy a present. This was no invitation to join a happy couple in holy matrimony. This “wedding” was more like a funeral. The message was code to witness a murder. The al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades in Nablus were going to kill a collaborator and they wanted me and my NBC News team to film it.
Later I would get the details and what a murky tale it was. The Israeli secret services had blackmailed a Palestinian man into becoming an informer. They knew he was having an affair with a married woman. The woman was married to a fighter with the al-Aksa Brigades, who was hiding out in the Balata refugee camp with one of the top Al-Aksa commanders. The Israelis wanted to kill them both.
The woman wanted to marry her lover so she betrayed the hiding place of her husband and the militant leader. Israeli commandoes stormed the safe house and found them crammed behind a false wall in a small room. In a hail of gunfire the militants were killed. Case closed.
But al-Aksa knew there must have been a collaborator, and they quickly found him. And her. They videotaped their confessions against a plain white wall. The “wedding” was payback time.
When I got the call, I was shaken. How many dead people did I need to see? And I was confused. I understood al-Aksa’s rationale: “The collaborators must be killed or they’ll betray more people, and next time we’ll be killed. It’s them or us.”
But I also understood the collaborators: “We have no life under the Israelis. Our lives are ruined whatever we do.”
And I understood the Israelis: “Anything goes to stop the suicide bombers from killing more Jewish children. We’re fighting a war.”
As I put the phone down, I thought, I understand too much. I feel sorry for them all. But it occurred to me: If I sympathize with killers, informers and blackmailers, maybe there’s something wrong with me, too.
It wouldn’t be surprising. After three decades covering war and suffering in every dark corner of the globe, anyone’s brain would be fried.
So what should I do? Film the killing or not? I sat down and stared at the phone, wondering whether to summon the team and hit the road. Ethically, it was a no-brainer. No way am I going to witness a murder. But hey, I thought, it’s going to happen anyway, if I’m there or not. It’s not my fault. And this is my job.
Nobody owns the moral high ground: My role in life is to see and report, and maybe learn a little. So there I sat, looking at the phone, and needing to decide quickly – should we go film the murder?
No shortage of ethical dilemmas
This is how I begin my new book, “Breaking News.” It’s an extreme example of the kind of dilemmas foreign correspondents face in distant places, among strange cultures, as we strive to report the news while being fair to everyone we meet. We never know what is around the corner, but our responses define who we are, as people as well as reporters.
I have faced many more real-life dilemmas, almost as many as the stories I have covered, for the NBC rule book does not deal with having lunch with a Somali warlord, who has just stolen the food you are eating from the aid organizations; or with how far to press for answers from Son Sen, who helped kill up to two million of his countrymen, while at his mercy in a Khmer Rouge jungle hideout in Cambodia. Nor does the rule book tell you how to react when a Palestinian militant tells you how happy he is that a suicide bomber blew up a bus in Tel Aviv, killing 21 people, while you know your son just took a bus to that city center.
How about this for a dilemma? In Somalia, Tom Brokaw had asked me for a story on what it’s like to die of starvation. I could ask a doctor. Or I could show Fida Ibrahim die on camera. She was a once-pretty, 20-year-old Somali woman I just met who is starving and sick in a clinic, and the nurse said she had no hope of surviving. What is the best way to tell the story?
Or this: Five-year-old Yehona Iliu has lost her family in the crush of Kosovar refugees fleeing the ethnic slaughter of the Serbs. We have followed her for months as the Red Cross and the British Army try to trace her mother, and like everyone, we have fallen for this sweet child that never cried. Finally, Yehona’s mother is found in an Albanian camp and we are invited to the reunion, to witness the story’s happy ending. But on the same day, NATO invades Kosovo and we are assigned to follow the German tanks. Which is more important?
Here’s another one. On the West Bank, an Israeli soldier hits a Palestinian driver on the head with a night-stick with a sickening thud. We trace both men to their homes and explain how the two men’s lives crossed at this violent moment. And then we wonder, should we ask them whether they’d like to meet each other, this time in a peaceful context? Is that legitimate, or is it interfering with the story, interfering with fate, playing God?
No clear answers
There is no clear way to act: the conflict is always between getting the best pictures and information for a television report, and staying a reasonably decent human being. For so often one has to compromise one’s humane instincts and become callous and thick-skinned, in pursuit of the story. The most obvious example, common in wars, is the need to get a sound bite from somebody who has just lost a family member; to film a mother grieving a dead child is heart-breaking, yet how else can you convey what has happened?
In my career I didn’t always get it right. When I was working as a cameraman for Visnews (now Reuters) before I joined NBC News, my soundman was killed in a minefield, the correspondent was seriously wounded, and I had to decide whether to walk through the mines to rescue him.
As an Egyptian jet dropped bombs on the Israeli army vehicle I was in, and strafed us with his machine guns, I had to decide, should I hide, film him, or just scream in terror? What to do when it became clear that mujahedeen guiding me over the Hindu Kush mountain range to report on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were more interested in robbing me than fighting the Soviets?
I felt my way as best I could. Along the way I have met thousands of people who allowed me into their lives at their lowest moments, and I have tried to act with respect and care, and tell their story as clearly and accurately as possible.
Some have become friends; I have found that almost everybody, when you talk long enough to him or her, has goodness inside them. While a few are just irredeemable villains, beyond comprehension. In conflicts, most people believe their enemy to be the latter; and I have tried to be a bridge.
As for that wedding invitation, I didn’t accept. But I did see the murder, because the killers made their own video, and showed it proudly.
Martin Fletcher is NBC News Tel Aviv Bureau Chief and lead correspondent. He is also a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.