In 1978, I was a young foreign correspondent assigned to cover “the Troubles,” the conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics, between those loyal to the British Crown and those determined that Ireland become a united and independent nation.
There were “paramilitaries” on both sides. Terrorism — bombings, assassinations and other forms of violence targeting civilians for political ends — was among the principal weapons employed.
But, in at least one way, terrorism was different then. While I sometimes worried that I might end up on the wrong Belfast street at the wrong time, I was confident that no one saw me as a target. Journalists were neutrals.
“Loyalists” and “Republicans” alike were eager to tell me their stories and have me retell those stories to distant audiences. Without fear, I would sit down with hard men and ask tough questions.
At some point over the years since, new technologies and ideologies brought changes. This became obvious when the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl took his notebook and pen to a 2002 meeting with terrorists in Karachi. These terrorists had a different approach to shaping the narrative, one that would entail beheading Pearl on camera and posting the video on the Internet.
The Troubles wracked Northern Ireland for almost 30 years. More than 1,500 people were killed. In those days, that was a serious number. But early in the new century nearly twice as many innocent people would be killed on a single day in New York and Washington. Meanwhile, in Syria over the past year, a conflict with ethno-religious-political undercurrents has taken some 20,000 lives. Perceiving this as an inflationary trend does not inspire optimism.