I was stunned. They’re going to kill this guy for informing to the Americans. So I kept going back to the town to find out what happened to him. Finally, he was killed. His father killed him. The actual reporting on the story, how it happened, didn’t take that long. I’d say a week. The key was to see the father. The father actually did talk to me. It was the most chilling story I’ve ever covered. I think about it a lot. When the father said those words to me, “Not even the prophet Abraham had to kill his son,” it took my breath away. I’ll never forget that line, because in just one sentence it captured the whole biblical tragedy of it. The story really did haunt me. A lot of people thought the story showed the brutality of what this conflict had done to the country, but I never saw it that way. I saw it as this kind of footnote to the war, the way the smallest intervention alters a society. The American military enters this town. Sets off this chain of events that forever changes the landscape. That’s what was so compelling to me about it. Finally, in 2009 I got a chance to go back and write it that way. When I went back in ’09, I saw the father. He didn’t want to talk, but the brother did. He took me to the grave. We talked about it. This footnote in 2003 led us to this point in 2009 and still it is far from over. There’s a saying in Iraq, something along the lines of, someone’s father is killed, forty years pass and the son hasn’t exacted revenge. The son says, “It’s still early.”

Write It the Way You Feel It

The first or second morning after the invasion, I was so tired and I had spent so many years at the AP, learning the rules of keeping your distance from the story, and I said to myself, I’m just going to write it the way I feel it. From then on, I kind of just did that. I think you have to care about these stories to do them justice. And I did care about it. I care about the Middle East. You have to be careful and still there are certain rules you have to follow. But I think there’s enough gray there that you can kind of get away with being a little more interpretive. It’s not easy. What’s so rewarding about the reporting in Egypt, the reporting in Iraq is, if you just tell peoples’ stories, then they become the vehicles for these sentiments, these emotions. It becomes much more real in a certain way. Also much more honest.

The thing I see so often, especially with foreign correspondents, the longer they do this, the more the story becomes about them. I think it’s almost unavoidable for some of these guys who stay there for as long as they do. They’ve seen so much, they’ve experienced so much, they’ve talked to so many people, that in some ways to them it feels repetitive. Their own experience is so much more interesting and compelling. Which is a disaster; the antithesis of what we should be doing as foreign correspondents. It should be about the people we cover. That lesson gets lost over time. It is cynicism.

A Story Worth Dying For

What so powerfully strikes me when I go back to Iraq now, the very fabric of the place has been torn, how Iraqis consider themselves, how they see themselves, how they identify themselves, how they relate to the government, what the government represents—all those things are broken. Identity and politics have become so visceral, so tied together, it’s hard to see any broader notion of state or nation.

That’s kind of a feature that is writ small across the region, these conflicts over how we identify ourselves as Arabs. Those two notions, is it a broader identity or a smaller identity? I think it’s in part a legacy of the Ottoman empire, and a consequence of colonialism—the ideologies that have tried to live up to the ambitions of what the region wants to be. The dysfunction of all that, and of course the conflict with Israel, have fundamentally impacted these notions of identity. I think that’s where we’re at right now. That’s what’s so compelling about this Arab Spring—people at some level, consciously or unconsciously, are trying to heal the wounds of a century of, not just dysfunction, but of having governments fail to meet their ambitions.

Terry McDermott spent thirty years at eight newspapers, most recently at the Los Angeles Times, where he reported from more than twenty countries. He is the author of the upcoming The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.