MUMBAI, INDIA -- I am sitting in a restaurant with a few journalism friends, having come to India to report a story about media and democracy. Joanna Slater, the Wall Street Journal bureau chief, is telling us about the tips she picked up on her five-day course in war reporting. The unspoken shadow hanging over us is Daniel Pearl, the Journal reporter who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in early 2002.
Ironically, this is the same training Pearl recommended to the Journal years before. Pearl was no swashbuckling war reporter -- he was a gentle, inquisitive man with a quirky sense of story, who strayed into the lair of terrorists when investigating the links between Richard C. Reid, the would-be shoe bomber, and Sheikh Gilani, a radical Muslim cleric.
Though I did not know Pearl, he was, as this dinner last month reveals, just one beat removed from my life: My friend Naresh Fernandes used to copyedit Daniel's pieces; Joanna is a friend of a friend. We all, in a way, were deeply changed by the Daniel Pearl tragedy, for it brought home to us the perils -- and necessity -- of seeking truth during dangerous times.
Two new books remind us that these dark days will be with us for long, long time: "A Mighty Heart" by Mariane Pearl, who recounts the agonizing days of her husband's abduction, and "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?" by Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French intellectual who has retraced Pearl's footsteps and asked some hard questions.
These books could not be more different. One is the astonishingly lucid, clear-eyed, even funny account of the agonizing days when Mariane, friends, colleagues and investigators tried valiantly to save Danny. There's a breathtaking terseness to the book, as if Pearl, a practicing Buddhist, has distilled her story down to its most elemental truths, creating both a suspenseful thriller, and a meditative koan on the terrible meaning of her experience. It is a beautiful book, one that I could not put down, for its grace and compassion, for its sharp, unmitigated sense of morality and anger.
Pearl offers almost unbearable strength in the face of the unbearable. When TV stations want to know why she didn't cry on camera, she thinks, "I was furious that nobody understood that a terrified reaction is exactly what terrorists want: they want to terrorize you. . . . There is another thing: Danny might hear me; somewhere, he might be watching. I must show him that I'm okay, and that the baby is okay. I must feed him strength from my strength. I must give him hope." At every moment -- mapping out the complicated links between militant groups, dealing with authorities who imply that Daniel may have been a spy -- she tries to stay to higher principles.
"You sleep with your conscience," she tells the president of CBS News, after broadcasters decide to air the videotape of the murder. "But I'm going to tell you what really makes me sad. It is that those [terrorists] knew all along they should make a video, because they knew all along you'd be ratings-hungry enough to broadcast it. They appealed to your weakness, and you gave in."
It's this clarity -- her fury, her sense of purpose -- that guides us through the muddled, frantic search for Daniel. The most moving part of the book -- the one in which my heart still seizes with pain -- is when, two days before her due date, back in Paris, she closed herself off to her friends, and allowed herself to imagine the gruesome details of what Daniel went through. Shortly thereafter, Mariane gave birth to their son, Adam, thus completing her personal cycle of death and birth.
Lévy, on the other hand, revels in murk and innuendo; he flashes across the page like a sorcerer, wielding his black cape and mirrors, promising to reveal the dark secrets of Pakistan, which is portrayed as an occult-like world of evil.
The book was a bestselling sensation in France (where it originally was published) because of Lévy's controversial contentions: that the London-born Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh (who since has been sentenced to death in connection with the murder) was both a "favored son" of Osama bin Laden and an agent of ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service. And Daniel Pearl was killed not because he was an American and a Jew, but because he was onto Pakistan's nuclear secrets.
Lévy's flamboyant style makes for a frustrating, fascinating, depressing book, bloated with self-referential details, too easily blurring fact and fiction. The worst transgression occurs when he stands in the room of the murder and imagines Daniel's last thoughts as the "Yemeni killer grabs the collar of his shirt and rips it open." And despite all the whispery, dramatic revelation, much of what Lévy uncovers is well-known: the interconnections between Pakistan's ISI and Al-Qaida; the sophisticated financing techniques done cleanly through financiers in Dubai.
On the other hand, Lévy's obsessive research and his eye for discrepancies can be brilliant, especially when he dives into one of the most important fissures in the investigation: the fact that Omar Sheikh was "held" at an ISI officer's home for seven days before being turned over to the authorities. Lévy raises fascinating questions: did Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf know this and use it as a ploy during his coincidental visit to Washington, D.C.? Or was it a message from militants to tell us who is really running the country? Were those days used to cover up the tracks of who was really involved, including some higher-ups?
Even if one punches holes in Lévy's various hypotheses, he has given us one of the most compelling portraits of this subterranean world of terrorism and state apparatus, and our reliance on an "ally" whose links to bin Laden and other militants are just a cell phone call away. If one wants to understand the cold-blooded arrangements of terror, then this is a book that makes a reader feel and see what we are up against -- not simply jihad or even Islamic fundamentalism, but global criminality.
In the end, forgiving Lévy's excesses, the two books make a strange but apt pair: one a moral lantern guiding us through dark times, the other a flashlight into all the political crevices we must -- and should -- understand about our very dangerous world.
Marina Budhos is the author of the novels "House of Waiting" and "The Professor of Light," and the nonfiction "Remix: Conversations With Immigrant Teenagers."