In harm's way

By ADAM REILLY  |  August 6, 2008

Then try to imagine how this sequence of events could have been avoided, starting with the initial publication of Hassan’s name. Why not keep it out of print?

Problem is, there’s no guarantee that would have been enough. Even if Cullen and his editors had given Hassan an alias, he still could have been sniffed out with a number of other Google-able identifiers: his hometown; his native language (Turkoman); the date and place of the attack that left him crippled (January 18, 2005, and Tal Afar); the fact that his parents died in the attack in question.

And then there are the photos to consider. The original “Rakan’s War” series featured three audio slide shows — with images captured by Globe photographer McDonald — of Hassan in a variety of settings: grinning from a wheelchair; posing for a family portrait in Iraq wearing a Mickey Mouse track suit; crying during physical therapy. McDonald’s photos were perfect complements to Cullen’s prose: each captured the severity of Hassan’s physical trauma and the durability of his spirit. But if Hassan had received an alias, the photos would have had to be eliminated too.

The list of details that could have been omitted to protect Hassan goes on and on. The prominent part played by Tye, Hassan’s Jewish benefactor, could have been nixed. So could the revelation that Hassan’s family received what seems to American eyes the woefully insufficient amount of $7500 compensation — $2500 for each of Hassan’s parents and the car they were driving — after they were mistakenly attacked. That figure isn’t so paltry in Iraq, and could have set up Hassan’s family for blackmail. What’s more, Hassan’s rehabilitation involved extensive work with women, including physical therapist Alison Tate; that could have offended fundamentalist sensibilities.

Mirrors and microcosms
This brings us to the crux of the problem. Maybe — if Cullen and McDonald and their editors had gone over the original installments of “Rakan’s War” like attorneys determined to avoid a libel suit do — the stories could have been written in such a way that the potential risk to Hassan was, if not eliminated, ratcheted down to the lowest possible level.

But if this had been done, it simply wouldn’t have been the same series. “Rakan’s War” succeeded, to a large extent, because it was so richly reported. Because all of Cullen’s characters came alive — even the ones that only played bit parts — the series was instantly engaging. But it was also ambiguous, in the best sense of the term. In his dual incarnations of beatific survivor and obstinate, occasionally resentful patient, Hassan emerged as both a victim of American force and a beneficiary of American generosity. His patrons, meanwhile, came across as often noble and occasionally presumptuous. And the relationships between Hassan and his benefactors captured the troubling complexity of the war in Iraq in an unexpected and deeply effective manner.

That’s the most that the public can ask of any journalist. If “Rakan’s War” hadn’t been published, there’s absolutely no guarantee that Hassan would be alive today. But the public would have been deprived of one of the best bits of reportage to come out of our current misadventure in Iraq. If you haven’t already done so, go back and read “Rakan’s War” now. It’s the best way to honor Rakan Hassan’s brief but heroic life.

To read the “Don’t Quote Me” blog, go to Adam Reilly can be reached

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