TCS Daily


Vincent And Van Gogh

By Bryan Preston - August 8, 2005 12:00 AM

Casualties of war. That phrase conjures up thoughts of the young drafted soldier who never returned to the farm he grew up on. It makes us think of generals ordering grand armies to sweep across plains or ships sunk by the cruel torpedoes of a submarine.

"Casualties of war" never makes us think of art critics or filmmakers. Art critics almost never have anything to do with war except perhaps as protestors, and while filmmakers sometimes end up orchestrating battles and ordering actors to fake death, they are usually detached from actual combat.

Yet in this war, the global war on terror or the global struggle against violent extremism, this war so confusing that even the White House can't keep the name straight, two of the most prominent casualties are an art critic and a filmmaker. Steven Vincent and Theo Van Gogh both died for the cause of freedom, in their own way exemplifying just why this war is so dangerous, so awful, and will be so difficult to win. Yet win we must.

Both men died because they expressed thoughts that hard-core Islamists found offensive enough to kill for. They died exercising one of the most basic rights we have long taken for granted: The right to think and speak as you please.

Theo Van Gogh was a blood descendant of the painter Vincent Van Gogh. He was a filmmaker, a polemicist, a rabble rouser, an iconoclast and, after 9-11, a vocal critic of Islam. In 2004, he worked with Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali to create a 10-minute film on women's rights in Islamic life. That's a bland way to say that he made a shock film featuring Islamic verse scrawled on nude women, verses that condone and promote violence against women and subjugate them to the will of men. The film debuted on Aug. 29, 2004, on Dutch television.

On the morning of Nov. 2, 2004, Van Gogh found himself riding his bicycle down an Amsterdam street when Mohammed Boyeuri confronted him. Boyeuri shot Van Gogh eight times, stabbed him twice in the chest, slit his throat almost to the point of decapitating him, and then pinned a screed to Van Gogh's chest with a knife. All on a busy Amsterdam street. The note promised jihad against non-Muslims, America, Britain, the world really. All of radical Islam's usual enemies made the list. Boyeuri was quickly caught, expressed no remorse at his trial, promised further murders in the name of Islam, and received life in prison.

Boyeuri killed Van Gogh over a 10-minute film he found offensive. Freedom of expression in the Netherlands died with Theo Van Gogh that day, unless and until the West defeats Boyeuri's brand of Islam.

Steven Vincent died this week, in Iraq. Prior to 9-11, he was an art critic based in New York. The sight of the Twin Towers collapsing, of all the death and destruction and misery of that day, instantly turned the dovish liberal into a pro-defense hawk.

He was in Basra last week, headquarters of the British contingent of the Coalition of the Willing, working on his second book about Iraq. It was his third trip to Iraq since the war began. His first book, In the Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq, was a Kiplingesque travelogue describing life all over Iraq shortly after the US-led coalition swept the tyrant Saddam Hussein from power. Unlike most of his journalist colleagues who stay cooped up in Baghdad's most secure area, Vincent wandered all over Iraq without any security, met a cross section of Iraqi citizens, explored the pro-American Kurdish regions and the recalcitrant Sunni triangle and just about every other point of interest in Iraq. He wanted to know as much about Iraq as he could, both to get a feel for its past and to gain some understanding of what the future after Saddam might have in store. In the Red Zone stands as the most lucid and honest report from post-Saddam Iraq yet written.

After his second trip and the publication of his book late last year, I got to know Steven briefly via e-mail. I found him to be a brave and thoughtful man, extremely articulate and full of love for his family, his country and the people of Iraq. It was clear that even though he had narrowly escaped danger more than once in Iraq, he was eager to go back. And go back he eventually did.

In addition to his book, Vincent wrote a blog, and he wrote numerous articles for various publications, all about the war. But it was probably his last New York Times article that got him killed. It was published Sunday, July 31. In it, he wrote about extremist Shiite infiltration of the Basra police and security forces. He wrote of British indifference to the mullahfication of the city's government. And he described a "death car" that police death squads use to round up local enemies to murder them.

A couple of days after that article appeared, the death car came for him and his interpreter. They were abducted and Vincent was shot several times, his body then dumped beside a highway. His interpreter was also shot, but survived with grave injuries.

Vincent was most likely murdered in Basra because he wrote an article that some Islamists didn't like. Van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam because he made a film that an Islamist didn't like.

Vincent and Van Gogh, the art critic and the filmmaker, may have been unlikely casualties, but casualties they nevertheless are.

In this war, casualties are not limited to soldiers on any designated battlefield. If an art critic and a filmmaker can become casualties of this war for no more reason than expressing a point of view, anyone can become a casualty of this war anywhere.

This isn't Bush's fault or Blair's fault. We are at war with a bloodthirsty, implacably cruel enemy that brooks no deviation at all from its narrow, inhuman beliefs. This enemy makes no distinction between military and civilian. This enemy wants to engulf the world in war. It wants to capture the world for its god. And it hopes the examples of Steven Vincent and Theo Van Gogh and the countless others it has so ruthlessly murdered will frighten the rest of us into submission.

It is up to us to prove this enemy wrong.

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