Sunday Essay: A death in a faraway place

Sunday Essay Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan

THIS new year isn’t even a week old and one of its largest news stories has started to unfold.

Last Friday, a 62-year-old man was killed in an airstrike on the road to Baghdad’s international airport. Most American and British media organizations described him as a dangerous man who had orchestrated attacks that killed hundreds, both soldiers and civilians. But other news providers, including those closer to the ground in Iran, described him as a war hero who played a key role in the fight against Isil.

While simplification is a worthy goal in most cases, some stories have run too long and involve so many threads that it will take sustained attention to make sense of what has happened. And it won’t be a simple task. The assassination of Iran’s Qassem Suleimani is one such story.

After the story broke, many American broadcasters kept repeating this question: Do you feel safer after what has happened? Thousands of Filipino families who have loved ones in Iran and Iraq have probably asked this as well, although their worries have yet to make the news here at home.

Proximity is one of the news elements journalists are taught. The closer to your community an event is, the more interested they’d be in it. But because millions of Filipinos work abroad, proximity doesn’t just mean physical nearness. Anything major that happens where a community of Filipinos depends is (emotionally) proximate and, as such, newsworthy.

Here are the emerging responses to the story so far. Already, leaders of the US-led coalition that’s fighting Isil/Isis have limited their operations to focus on their “first priority, (which) is protecting coalition personnel.” Today, Sunday, the Iraqi Parliament is set to hold an emergency session where “increasing calls for the full withdrawal of foreign troops” from Iraq would be taken up. Iran is in the midst of three days of national mourning.

All those highlights are from reports by Al Jazeera. What limited time and attention I have these days for the news, I usually spend on Philippine, American and Australian mainstream outlets, for both personal and work reasons. But for the Suleimani story, I’m making it a point to devote equal time to the Qatari state broadcaster’s reports as well.

Why? Because another observation that the Suleimani story has brought to the surface is how limited our understanding of events abroad can be: limited by the natural barriers of culture and language and limited by the priorities and world views of the organizations on whom we depend for the news.

Our more connected world remains full of unfamiliar places.

What I know of the assassinated Iranian general, so far, I have drawn mostly from articles by Dexter Filkins, who writes for the American magazine The New Yorker. (Look up his articles “The Dangers Posed by the Killing of Qassem Suleimani” from Jan. 3, 2020 and “The Shadow Commander” from Sept. 23, 2013.)

Suleimani was born to a farmer’s household in a poor mountain village in eastern Iran in March 1957. When he was 13, he and a relative went to another city to work as laborers in a school building site, to help raise money to pay back their fathers’ agricultural debts. At 22, Suleimani was so inspired by the uprising that ended the monarchy and created the Islamic Republic of Iran that he joined the Revolutionary Guard. He fought in the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. After covert missions to Iraq, he had a habit of bringing back a goat that he and his men would then grill. He adored soldiers. One of his five children lives in Malaysia.

There are surely many other stories about his rise to power, but the news has no space or time (and perhaps too pragmatic a view of its readers’ limited attention spans) to tell them.

We are told only that since 1998, Suleimani had led the Quds, an elite branch of the Revolutionary Guard. Attending the funeral of an old friend and fellow fighter in 2013, he wept. Of that event, Filkins wrote: “The Quds Force had never lost such a high-ranking officer abroad.”

Now they have. How the rest of the story goes, we will have to wait cautiously and see.


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