In this age of terror, time doesn't heal every wound. The footage of the Twin Towers , crumbling to the ground, never gets easier to watch. Nor is it any less upsetting, each time over, to recount the story of Daniel Pearl.
It's hard to imagine a more fitting symbol of terrorism's cruel impartiality. Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed in Pakistan in 2002, was sparkling and smart, a father-to-be. As a journalist, he was committed to understanding the Muslim street -- so much so that, by his desk at the Journal's London bureau, he kept a huge picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini .
To the men who kidnapped and murdered him in early 2002, none of this mattered. ``The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl," an HBO documentary that premieres tonight, plumbs the contrasts between Pearl and Omar Sheikh, the terrorist who masterminded Pearl's abduction, and compares their trajectories.
That's an ambitious project, hard to achieve with scattered facts. Pearl's grieving relatives and friends have much to say, but Sheikh remains a blurry figure and a compelling mystery. Raised in London and educated at a tony private school, he found his way to militant Islam by way of protests against ``The Satanic Verses" and visits to war-torn Bosnia. Before long, he had a reputation as an unapologetic murderer.
The filmmakers, Ahmed A. Jamal and Ramesh Sharma , have only a few old photographs and film clips at their disposal; it sometimes feels as if they're trying to impose meaning on every detail. ``We saw so much hatred in his face against these young English boys," one writer says after watching footage of the young Sheikh in an arm-wrestling competition.
Jamal and Sharma offer a lot of grand statements like this, without always achieving much depth. They also make us fight through an intrusive score, a cache of distracting stock footage, and a narration by Christiane Amanpour , who never drops the urgent tone of a breaking news report.
But when the filmmakers abandon the point-by-point comparison and get into the details of the kidnapping itself, ``The Journalist and the Jihadi" turns gripping. Pearl, while smart and cautious, was hungry for a story. Sheikh ensnared him with a false name, a string of collegial e-mails, and the promise of a meeting with a man who figured in the Al Qaeda money trail.
As Pakistani police hunted for Sheikh, the country's intelligence service was protecting him. And while the original plan was to release Pearl after the propaganda campaign had run its course, his Pakistani captors sold him to a group of Arabs with designs on a gruesome murder.
Through it all, we get glimpses of a complex terror web and a cold, chilling outlook on the world. When Pearl first disappeared, one of his Wall Street Journal colleagues begged for help from a man connected to the Pakistani terror network. He refused, as he explains to the camera matter-of-factly: After seeing so many abductions and deaths among his own people, the plight of a single American didn't move him.
The film doesn't make too much of this, nor does it dig far into the uncomfortable subject of what Pearl must have been thinking in his final days. It chooses to frame Pearl's story as a loving eulogy, to offer an almost-comforting sense of closure.
In truth, there's nothing remotely comforting about Daniel Pearl's story, nothing to convince us that understanding terrorists will help us win them over. If your enemies choose to see you as a symbol instead of a person, being the best man in the world won't make you any safer.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com.