Note to Juan Cole

Slandering murder victims and insulting their widows is in bad taste.

Now, really!

Surely you know that this is simply not an adequate, or appropriate, response to this.

1. You say you “don’t want to argue with” Vincent’s widow, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, and use that as an excuse to ignore the facts she brings up, while accusing her falsely of “circulating a misleading characterization” of what you said in your original post. I’ve read the post, and her account, and they seem to me to match perfectly.

2. In particular, Ms. Ramaci-Vincent makes a series of factual claims about her husband’s care to never allow any appearance of impropriety between himself and his translator. Those claims seem to be relevant to the question you posed, but you simply ignore them.

3. You criticize Vincent for not knowing Arabic, but pretend that you don’t know that, in English, “romantically involved with” is euphemistic for “having sex with.” Your earlier item stated as fact that Vincent was “romantically involved with” his translator. The Telegraph article you cite says what the widow says: that Vincent planned to marry the translator “for visa purposes.” The “romantic involvement” seems to be entirely your invention. (The two preceding sentences embody what seems be an error; the Telegraph story apparently has been changed from the version Prof. Cole would originally have read. See update below.)

4. Perhaps you can explain how you square your contemptuous dismissal of Ms. Ramaci-Vincent with your criticism of George W. Bush’s treatment of Cindy Sheehan? Perhaps he, like you, isn’t “interested in arguing” with someone who has been bereaved. Or perhaps he, like you, thinks he would lose the argument.

The main difference I can see between the two cases is that Mr. Bush hasn’t insulted Ms. Sheehan’s dead son, while you have insulted Ms. Ramaci-Vincent’s dead husband. (And, just for good measure, you insult the translator who was shot four times by the same people who murdered Steven Vincent; you talk about her in terms of “sleeping around,” of “seduction by strange men,” and of her acting in a way that would lead her to be considered a “slut.” And yet you now proclaim that you have no knowledge of any sexual activity, or even interest, between Steven Vincent and Nur al-Khal.)

5. You say that Vincent’s death doesn’t exempt him from criticism; otherwise, you say, “the entire historical profession would collapse.” But surely you can find a distinction between saying rude things about an historical figure and verbally pissing on a murder victim’s grave before the corpse is cold? “He behaved foolishly and frankly ignorantly.” What a eulogy for someone you describe as “in some sort a colleague”!

6. In the course of criticizing Mr. Vincent’s conduct (both his actual conduct and the conduct you attribute to him) you never find occasion to criticize the conduct of his murderers, whether they were outraged relatives of Nur al-Khal’s or members of the local Sadrist death squad. It’s fair to ask whose side you take: that of the victims, or that of the perpetrators?

7. If, contrary to the salacious speculations you are now disavowing, but consistent with his own fears and with eyewitness reports that the killers were in an unmarked police car, Steven Vincent was killed for ordinary political reasons — if he was one more reporter killed for knowing what the men with guns could not afford to have known — then it is true, as you say, that his killers were among those put into power by the natural operation of the policies of the Bush Administration: policies Steven Vincent largely supported. You seem to think that would reflect discredit on him.

But I would say that his willingness to pursue the story wherever it led him was a testimony to his integrity. How many times have you chosen to publish fact or analysis contrary to your prejudices?

8. You assert that Mr. Vincent “was egregiously breaking the rules of gender segregation and female honor. He should have had a male interpreter.” That is, he should have refused to offer a woman a job she was professionally qualified to do, because local men might disapprove? No doubt the women of Iraq, and of the rest of the Arab world, will be delighted to learn that the head of the Middle East Studies Association is so devoted to keeping them in their place.

9. If Steven Vincent acted imprudently, did not Nur al-Khal act equally imprudently, and without the excuse of being ignorant of local custom? If she was willing to take the risk of working with him, did he really have some sort of ethical obligation to refuse to work with her? Did she have no agency? If so, why?

10. If the case had involved a male Nigerian anthropologist studying the culture of the Mississippi Delta and a white female Mississipian acting as his guide and informant, would you similarly blame the Nigerian if her relatives, or the remnants of the local Klan, had decided to string him up? Would he, too, have been culpably “naive,” “foolish,” and “ignorant”? If not, what makes the morally significant difference between the two cases?

It seems to me, Professor Cole, that you have allowed your contempt for someone infringing on your scholarly turf without appropriate credentials to combine with your hatred of those who support current Administration policies in Iraq in a way that has blinded you to the ordinary human decencies. And it seems to me that you owe Ms. Ramaci-Vincent an apology, and your readers a more accurate statement of the facts.

Update As usual after writing such a critical post, I was concerned that I might have been mistaken or unfair. I immediately wrote a politely-phrased note to Prof. Cole, who has not responded to date, either by email or on his own weblog. Four readers wrote in his support, but none of them made what seemed to me especially valid points.

On the other hand, one reader who is no fan of Prof. Cole’s reports having seen an earlier version of the Telegraph story (a version apparently no longer on line) that was less cautious in suggesting an erotic link between Steven Vincent and his translator, and thus more in line with Prof. Cole’s account, than the one that appears when you follow the link in Prof. Cole’s post (and is reprinted in full at the end of that post itself).

Insofar as that is correct — and I have no reason to doubt it — then I erred in criticizing Prof. Cole so sharply for merely repeating what he had read. We should all be more cautious than we are about repeating as fact what we have seen in the newspapers.

My thanks to my alert reader. Those who bring other errors to my attention will also earn my gratitude.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: