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The Life and Death of a Lone Wolf by Natalie Wood
The Jewish world is very small. In Israel where there have been seven full-scale wars and innumerable ‘armed conflicts’ since the state was established in 1948, everyone knows at least one family bereaved by war; one person who has died slowly from their wounds – often after many years of great suffering – or someone who somehow lives a full life despite having sustained appalling injuries.
The Jewish world is tiny. The first time many Jews saw Steven Joel Sotloff’s name, they knew instinctively that despite his appearance, the foreign correspondent kidnapped by ISIS was Jewish.
Then came the U.S. freelancer’s dreadful end.
Yeah, said my husband’s first cousin. She had once dated his dad, Arthur.
That’s right, echoed The Jewish Journal’s Danielle Berrin. They had grown up together in Miami where they attended the Temple Beth Am day school and much later, corresponded on Facebook when they discovered they had both become journalists.
Sure, announced all the other news outlets once the self-imposed embargo was lifted, Sotloff had dual American-Israeli nationality and his grandparents had been Holocaust survivors. Then one of my own friends confirmed she had met him while he was studying as a lone immigrant at the Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC) in Herzliya during the early 2000s.
So how a man in such a position managed to hide his background and his faith, yet pray regularly and even fast on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – simply beggars belief.
If the story is not make-believe, perhaps Sotloff would have said his faith supported him; that heaven was on his side. But his luck ran out. He was hoodwinked at a fake checkpoint, then captured and ‘sold’ to ISIS by Syrian rebels. Then, as the world now knows, following a year of incarceration, he was slaughtered most vilely, just like his non-Jewish colleague, James Foley and another infamously executed Jewish correspondent, Daniel Pearl.
But the three men had yet more in common. It was not simply that they were well-educated westerners in the Judeo-Christian tradition, imbued with a peculiar gift for gathering and interpreting news.
Foreign correspondents and investigative reporters share many traits. They are resourceful but restless. They dislike being desk-bound and loathe routine. Their search for the truth of a story is also their way of escaping the drudgery of ordinary life.
But where many correspondents who are posted abroad prefer to work in packs based at central hotels, people like Sotloff are lone wolves. I don’t believe he could have been the ‘gentle soul’ described by his mother, Shirley. But neither, I suggest, was he an adrenalin-crazed ‘war junkie’. He simply loved doing what he did and like adventurers in the classic mould, he felt compelled to follow a story simply because it ‘was there’.
It appears there was always one more lead to chase and it was the last one that caused his end. I don’t agree that the Obama Administration was responsible for Sotloff’s plight and his family must surely realise that he went about his self-imposed work acutely aware of all the possible consequences. I’m not entirely clear why some hostages, including Sotloff, agree to read statements written by their captors when they know their death is inevitable.
Sotloff was video recorded next to a masked figure, addressing President Obama thus: “You’ve spent billions of US taxpayers’ dollars and we have lost thousands of our troops in our previous fighting against the Islamic State, so where is the people’s interest in reigniting this war?” He must have known the words would be dismissed as empty rhetoric.
While I salute the life of one modern hero, I want us all to remember another, less celebrated hostage who was murdered in 2004 after being kidnapped by Islamist militants in Iraq.
Italian security officer, Fabrizio Quattrocchi, who had begun working life as a baker, was forced to dig his own grave and then kneel beside it wearing a hood while his captors prepared to film his killing.
But he defied them, attempted to pull off the hood and as he yelled, “”I’ll show you how an Italian dies!” he was shot in the back of his neck.
It has been pointed out that if other hostages were to react like this, it would prevent terrorists from publicising beheadings and their campaign would begin to falter.
Where I believe people like Sotloff fail is that they commit the cardinal sin in journalism by becoming the story rather than simply its narrator. While it’s natural for the grieving families to lash out at convenient targets, they should be made aware of how other people’s lives are endangered in any attempt to rescue their loved ones.
I offer Sotloff’s family and all Jewish readers my best wishes for the Jewish New Year of 5775.