Dear Little Pearl:
By the time you read these words, God willing, you will not be a “Little Pearl” anymore. As I write these words, you are not yet born. It is March and you are due in May.
Last weekend President Bush mentioned you at the annual dinner of the Gridiron Club. The 117-year-old organization of Washington-based newspaper reporters and columnists invites our nation’s president and Cabinet to a dinner each year so we can make fun of each other with songs and dance. This year Bush broke with tradition to ask us to do one serious thing.
He asked us to help you to know a little about Daniel Pearl, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and the father you will not have a chance to know.
He asked us to write letters to you, his soon-to-be-born son, and he would add one of his own.
“You better than anyone know what Daniel Pearl was doing in Afghanistan,” he said. “You better than anyone can explain the larger purpose he was serving. Someday you’ll help a little boy understand his father a little better, and what a great gift that would be.”
Well, young Pearl, our president and I do not always see eye-to-eye politically, but we agree on the value of good fathers. We also have a good idea of how eagerly your dad awaited your arrival and how proud of you he would have been.
I did not know your father, but, like a lot of other Washington-based journalists, I feel as though I did because so many people I know knew him.
By the time you read this your may have learned in school that Washington is a very powerful capital. But spend a little time here and it will feel like a very small town, one in which you never feel more than one person removed from knowing everybody else.
So judging by what I have heard about your father, I think he’d want to give you, among other facts of life, this important piece of advice:
Don’t let people cram you into their little box.
From what I gather, your father was what we used to call a “free spirit” back in the 1960s. It helped make him a great reporter and a thoroughly likeable human being.
He only spent a couple of years in Washington in the mid-90s, mostly covering telecommunications. But after his death, hundreds of people paid tribute to him in Madam’s Organ, a Washington music bar where your father would sometimes perform fiddle, guitar or mandolin with groups that had names like Bob Perilla’s Big Hillbilly Bluegrass Band.
But Dan Pearl is known to have enjoyed John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and other jazz greats, too. He worked overtime chasing a good story, but always found time for some basketball with friends and neighbors on Saturday mornings at a District of Columbia gym. By all accounts, he refused to shut his eyes or ears to any of the wonders the world had to offer. He found the story everyone is waiting to tell about themselves.
“People who we believed were the epitome of boredom, he found to be interesting, even intriguing,” his father, Judea Pearl, said at a memorial service Sunday in Los Angeles, according to news accounts. “Little did we know that talking to strangers would one day invite this tragedy.”
Yes, your father appears to have been pursuing a very important story when he was kidnapped and killed. He was investigating possible links between Richard Reid, a British man who reportedly tried to blow up a jetliner with explosives in his shoes, and the Al Qaeda and radical Islamic elements of Pakistani intelligence.
It appears that your father trusted his contacts and they double-crossed him. In the end, they killed him to make some sort of sick, perverted political statement. They forced him to declare on videotape that he was a Jew and then they killed him.
The horror, yet also the banality of such evil defies words. Your father was a self-described citizen of the world. He was born in the United States, married to your mom Mariane Pearl, a Frenchwoman, and a committed world explorer, determined to provide the bridge between people that only comes from sharing their stories with the rest of the world.
But to his captors, he was simply an American and a Jew, both of which mean “enemy” in their twisted way of viewing the world these days. To the radical Islamists, all of us Americans are “Jews,” the enemy they do not understand and therefore view as an irredeemable threat.
The sad lesson of all that, young Pearl, is that, no matter how hard you try to be your own man, as you should, there always will be someone who will try to remake you into their image of what they think you are. Someone will try to cram you into his or her box. They live in the past. You must live in the future.
Your father lives on, too, in our hearts and in your life. Don’t let your dreams be smothered by the nightmares of others. Don’t listen to their labels. Know yourself, then be yourself.
Your mom, Mariane Pearl, is understandably saddened by your father’s death. Yet she also sounds strong in spirit and remarkably free of guile or resentment. She is an inspiration to us all. Let her be an inspiration to you, too. Take it from me, no one will ever love you more than she does.
Yours in peace and freedom,
Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune. He is also on the Board of Directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists.