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The legacy of Daniel Pearl

Last night at 7 p.m. in CEMEX Auditorium, two fellow Stanford students and I hosted a discussion with renowned author Thomas Friedman.

While any discussion with Friedman marks a special occasion, last night was particularly meaningful as it commemorated the life and legacy of Stanford alumnus Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent who lost his life at the hands of Pakistani Al-Qaeda in 2002.

Before discussing Pearl’s death, I hope to think critically about Pearl’s life and legacy at Stanford and abroad. Pearl was not just an exceptional journalist but a student of the world committed to exploring new ways of understanding intractable conflicts.

At Stanford, Pearl co-founded the Stanford Commentary, a newspaper devoted to exploring multiple sides of contentious issues. Although short-lived, Pearl’s publication filled a void at Stanford: the absence of reputable venues through which students could engage in balanced political discourse.

Pearl took his vision and extended it beyond Stanford. A committed journalist, he interned with the Palo Alto Weekly and the Indianapolis Star prior to joining the Wall Street Journal in 1990, where he developed his penchant for understanding cultures and conflict. As a WSJ Bureau Chief in Bombay, his articles revealed mistakes in the War on Terror, as well as the tactics of Al-Qaeda, which financed terrorism with the smuggling of gems from East Africa.

His contemporaries viewed Pearl as a “sensitive observer of Islam,” a journalist able and willing to peer behind the veil of sensationalist coverage to discover the cultural intricacies of the Muslim world. It is tragically ironic that Pearl lost his life at the hands of a Muslim extremist organization, which purports to support a religion that Pearl toiled to better understand.

Last night, my peers and I asked Friedman about Pearl’s legacy in relating foreign cultures to Western readership. We discussed the role of journalists in the fight against ISIS and the ethics of sending James Foleys and Steve Sotloffs—journalists who bravely gave their lives for the pursuit of truth—to cover high-risk areas. Are the benefits of their coverage really worth the risks?

But I am most excited that I was able to ask Friedman about what we, the Stanford community, can do to honor Pearl’s devotion to understanding the nuances of contemporary issues.

It seems that today, as the conflagration of divestment lights up this campus in hostile political battle, Pearl’s vision of nuanced debate was prescient beyond his knowledge. The open spaces for reasonable, cooperative dialogue seem slim for Stanford students.

Even as newcomers to the Stanford media scene—from the Political Journal to Fountainhopper and YikYak—give students an unprecedented voice in shaping campus news, the dearth of nuance in our politics seems striking. How might Pearl have addressed this imbalance?

A parallel phenomenon, the repression of free speech in favor of comfort, seems also to have taken hold of campuses across the country. Students are less willing to listen to the opinions that irk us, and when we do, we respond by drowning them out in self-righteous indignation. What might Pearl have written, I wonder, in the wake of such momentous changes and ingrained polarization? What can we do to honor his legacy?

For all his knowledge and experience, even Thomas Friedman cannot fully answer these questions for us. But events like last night’s Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture, which ground our contemporary understanding of the world in the insights of heroes past, are one step closer in that direction.

I hope you were able to join the discussion to help honor the legacy that Daniel Pearl leaves this campus. For now that the curtains have closed and the discussion has ended, our work has begun anew.      

Contact AZ Gordon at zelinger ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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