WASHINGTON -- While newspapers across the nation struggle to find space for foreign news, a strange story involving the death of a famous war correspondent six years ago in Syria is playing out in the courts with far too little attention being paid to what it could mean for the future of foreign coverage in America.
You may not even know the name Marie Colvin. She was an American from Long Island, but she had worked for years overseas, most notably for London's Sunday Times. Somewhat notorious as a war correspondent, she was one of the most intrepid among this special group of international journalists who go bravely, if sometimes foolhardily, from war to war.
But she stood out in terms of sheer courage, classiness and competence.
You couldn't easily miss her if you ran across her in Beirut, Misrata or Prishtina, or any of the other treacherous quicksands of the world. At 56, she was still a trim, gracious and attractive blonde -- but it was the black eye patch, worn almost jauntily, that always gave her away. In Sri Lanka in 2001, a random rocket-propelled grenade had taken out her eye.
Which brings us to the central question: Was her death that February day six years ago in Homs also "random"?
For if the tale behind the tale of the inimitable Marie Colvin dying in a Syrian government artillery barrage turns out to be true, it will be, by my accounting, the first well-publicized case of an actual GOVERNMENT targeting an individual journalist for death in a war zone.
Even Marie had had qualms the night before about going into the grotesque ruins of the once-thriving city of Homs, and that was unusual, given her to-the-edges bravery. She told her photographer, "Paul, I don't like this." He darkly agreed. "Every bone in my body is telling me not to do this," Paul Conroy wrote afterward. But Marie, as always, was implacably insistent.
First, there was the horror of getting into the besieged city with its 78,000 helpless people. The journalists and their Syrian rebel guides had to crawl more than 2 miles through a storm drain only 4 feet in height. Inside Homs in the dark, they somehow found the "media office," really a mostly destroyed cavern the government of Bashar Assad had already located.
Marie Colvin might have been simply another of the approximately 100 journalists killed so far in the seven years of the Syrian civil war, except that, as it now appears, the government was closing in on HER. Independent and respected sources, and 700,000 records smuggled out of Syria by defectors, activists and Arab League officials, outline how the government "bracketed" or "walked in" on her -- the military terms for focusing bombing and artillery closer and closer to the individual person desired dead.
Then there were the videos. She wrote at one point, as she watched Syrian activists upload "Battle of Homs" videos, that the Syrian war had become something "new." She had told a close friend back home, "I feel like I am the last reporter in the YouTube world."
Her editors back in London said afterward they could never understand why she had filed her reporting in a Skype call from inside Homs, which led Syrian intelligence to her. Why hadn't she waited until she was safely in Beirut?
As the creatively named defector "Ulysses" has testified, Damascus had employed traditional electronic intercepts and a mobile satellite tracking device that drove around the ruins of the media center neighborhood -- so it could assassinate, very specifically, her.
Indeed, the defectors also tell the story of how Syrian Maj. Gen. Rafiq Shahadah, who allegedly planned and carried out the 2012 attack, gave a gala party when he got the news and said, "Marie Colvin was a dog and now she's dead."
Marie's family filed a civil case in U.S. District Court against the Syrian government under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, with the aid of the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco. There are Syrian monies held in the United States that could be tapped as restitution, but it is Marie's story that will be of most historical importance.
Foreign correspondents die every day. Their "home" is a world gone mad. But in the 1949 Geneva Accords, journalists were recognized as "noncombatants," deserving of the same respect and status as, say, Red Cross workers, NGOs or U.N. officials. This sounds insignificant, but it's tremendously important because the public gets virtually all of its news and information about the world from the handful of foreign correspondents out there -- from the "foolhardy" Maries and Pauls.
Therefore, if it is true that the Syrians deliberately targeted even one journalist for execution, then we have entered a new period and Americans should think seriously indeed about the value of foreign coverage and what correspondents give up to provide it. This reportage is being cut back at every corner, with news bureaus being closed overseas and newspapers shutting down or cutting back their coverage at home.
Who in the future will crawl through the sewers of the world's ruined cities to tell us the truth about what is happening to mankind?