There was a young boy who was killed in a bombing and I was able to stay with him the entire day. Somehow I had to tie the day in the life, in the death, of this boy, to the broader events going on in Baghdad. It worked okay. You’re on deadline; stories never match what you want them to be. In some ways, that’s the task of a reporter: I don’t understand this story. How do I go about making sense of it, understanding the forces at work and how those forces are interacting? We’re not only trying to help our readers understand it, we’re trying to help ourselves understand it at the same time.

The Most Chilling Story I Ever Covered

I did a long piece in 2009, but it was a story that began in 2003. I must have gone to this village fifteen or twenty times. There was an American military operation in May 2003, kind of a precursor to the counterinsurgency. They went into this village, made a mess of the place, arrested a lot of people. I went there to cover the aftermath of this raid. We were sitting there talking in one of these tents. All of the elders were there, sitting together. They started talking about this informer. This guy named Sabah. You could tell people were nervous because there were two tribes inside the tent. I kept asking questions and could tell they didn’t want to answer. So I asked what’s going to happen to this informer. Finally, a guy leaned over to me and said, “He’s a dead man, but not yet.”

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

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.