Why I'm A Journalist
By Greg Gullberg
Feb. 22, 2013
Lt. David Wright
My personal quest to be a Voice for the Voiceless began about nine a.m. on a crisp blue Tuesday morning in 2001, a day that changed the world forever. I settled into my desk as I waited for 3rd period math class to begin, but my 7th grade teacher was nowhere to be found.
On that September morning I had little more on my mind than football practice and the next school dance. At just 13 years old, my entire world was only as big as Florissant city limits, a friendly suburban community just outside St. Louis, MO proper.
At that time, I couldn't point out the Middle East on a map, much less tell you what a Muslim was. I certainly had no idea that Islam was the world's second largest religion behind Christianity. Even then, to me religion was the act of spending 45 minutes sitting in the pews at church once a week and then going out to lunch afterward. That fateful morning of September 11th, I started out the day as just another dumb young punk without a clue. Little did my classmates and I know that day would strip away America's invincibility forever.
Finally, my teacher appeared. Mr. Hirsch was rolling in one of those old 20" televisions that proliferated the classrooms of our school and countless others that mounted on top a charcoal grey creaking roller stand. Whispers of confusion built into a low roar as he plugged it in without saying a word.
Mr. Hirsch flicked off the lights and the blue glow of the television illuminated the room. I watched unblinkingly for countless moments as smoke billowed out of each of the towers of the World Trade Center. My favorite teacher tried to explain to us what was happening, but I didn't understand. What's a World Trade Center? I thought.
The 20 or so students in our classroom joined a population of billions watching in horror around the world as the towers crumbled like mounds of sand. First the South tower. Then the North. In the days to come our hearts would shatter to learn the death toll mounted to nearly 3,000 lives lost in the ash. Speculation ran wild as to who had attacked us. But it didn't take long for the accusatory fingers to fall on Islam.
I have often said my generation is a product of 9/11. The Americans of "Generation Y" have never known a world without war. The events of 9/11 were tragic to say the least, but that is not what prompted my personal quest for understanding the world around me. It was the Anti-Islamic fallout in the aftermath.
America was vulnerable and scared. It still is. Devastated people, calling themselves patriots, would spit and cuss at Muslims in the streets. They would shout names like "Towel Head", "Jihadi", and "Terrorist". All too often I would hear people in my own life utter such horrible sentiments as, "The world would be better off if we'd just bomb the Middle East down to a sand box."
America has struggled against racism and today Blacks and Hispanics still struggle for equal ground with Whites. But when someone launches a string of derogatory and racially motivated verbal attacks against anyone of virtually any ethnicity there will be some public outcry from all sides. It is understood in modern American society that most racism is not acceptable.
As I see it, hatred against Muslims is treated as the only form of acceptable racism in modern America. You see it on your televisions, in your streets and even preached from the pulpit in some churches. The sinister acts of Osama Bin Laden and a ragtag clan of followers has poisoned the world's perception of Islam.
Granted the Middle East is far from perfect and perhaps antiquated in some ways of society and culture. Much of the region is wrought with greedy leaders who act more a kin to mob bosses. They corrupt the teachings of their own religion by twisting the messages of the Quaran to sway legions of the desperate, hungry and uneducated. Furthermore, it is my belief that the actions of extremist Islamic leaders are hardly motivated by religion at all, but more so using it as a scapegoat to gain power and political favor because who can really argue against what respected leaders call "The Will of God"?
Here in America the messages of hate from the Middle East are magnified as political pundits, certain zealous church leaders and select presidential candidates use individual accounts of violence as fodder for their clout and antics, as they blur the lines between Muslims and "terrorists". Moreover, these "leaders" point towards populations of protesters who vocalize their objections towards American politics and tell us how we should be afraid. And yet, the circuit of late night talk show hosts berate an ineffective congress on a daily basis, and no one has ever publicly accused David Letterman of planning an act of war against our nation's elected officials.
I am disheartened to see when my voice of dissension is muffled by yet another Islamic protest turned violent. I find it a double-standard however, that we seem to expect masses of protesters "over there" to be any more civil than ones back here stateside. And yes, the under-educated are often the most dangerous, and I would be remiss to fail to mention the Middle East has plenty of those.
These sentiments burdened my young mind as I started college. At the University of Oklahoma, almost from my first week, my mission became clear. I injected myself into the campus news media as quickly as possible, spending as much time on it as I could. I spread myself paper thin, but I didn't stop, I couldn't, I was on a personal mission.
OU has a brimming population of Islamic exchange students and I spent as much time as I could with them. I quickly made friends with students from Iran, Morrocco, Saudi Arabia, Tajikstan, whoever I could find. One of my friends was even a licensed medical doctor from Iraq.
I would go with them to their meetings at the "OU Muslim Student Association". We would eat authentic Arabic cuisine, listen to traditional music, express ideas about their place in modern American society and recite Persian poetry.
I would drink Persian tea with my new friends as they taught me about their cultures and what it means to be a Muslim. They explained how Islam is a religion of peace and respect for all living things. They even taught me to speak some Arabic and Farsi.
I declared International Studies as my Minor and concentrated my focus on the Middle East. Most of my classes were geared towards Islamic history, but I had never imagined how complicated it would be.
As Americans, we live in a country that is not even 250 years old. So maybe it should come as no surprise that studying a religion which has its roots dating back almost 1,500 years to the 600s CE (aka AD) that it would take far more than a handful of college classes in Oklahoma to ever fully understand. But the point is, people should make the effort to understand someone before judging them. And that's how I became so impressed with one particular member of our armed forces.
As a student journalist I covered the story of the first OU graduate killed in Afghanistan. Lt. David Wright was in a patrol vehicle that ran over a roadside bomb (called an "Improvised Explosive Device") planted by the Taliban terrorist organization in Kandahar, Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an American. The explosion sent the truck toppling end-over-end killing Lt. Wright and one of his sergeants.
Upon learning the news I instantly knew this soldier deserved more than a headline. With some digging, I worked the phones and finally tracked down his parents to the nearby town of Moore, Oklahoma. The 15 minute drive to the coffee shop where we agreed to meet felt like hours. I was so worried about what I should say to them. And I was just as much worried about what they might say that could offend me.
Their son's killer was a true terrorist and also a Muslim. Would they be able to tell the difference? I thought. I could hardly blame them if they did hold Islam accountable, seeing as how Lt. Wright's death was exacted in the name of Allah, God (the same God to which Christians pray). But this was neither the time nor place to launch into a passionate argument over religion and politics with two grieving parents preparing to bury their only son, if there ever was one.
As I pulled up to the coffee shop, I imagined myself strapping on a coat of armor. I scribbled notes furiously as they described their son "The War Hero" in detail. He was a promising track runner who came to OU on an athletic scholarship. He was a decorated member of OUROTC while he was a student. He accepted his diploma and marched proudly to Afghanistan to serve his country as an Army Lieutenant. From his parent's description, he was an exemplary American and a fine young soldier. But it was something I wasn't expecting - had never even thought of - that made me proud to have men like him serving our country.
Lt. Wright's parents told me about a letter he had written home before he died. In that letter he described his compassion for the people of Afghanistan. I'll never forget his exact words. "These people deserve a better existence and hopefully my efforts in some small way will provide that to them," he wrote.
To this very day I still think about Lt. Wright. I think about the courage it would take to see past the differences of strangers in an alien land and how bravely he stuck to his cause even while watching his closest friends die. His words made me feel connected to this soldier I had never met, in a profound way I never expected. I'll never know what Lt. Wright was truly like in real life, but the image of him in my mind is that of a giant. A true hero who strove to bridge the gap between Americans and Afghans. By comparison, my stories - my quest - feel silly and hallow.
Years later, Lt. Wright's shadow followed me to work. I was a reporter for WCTV in Tallahassee, my first reporting job. I was covering a Veteran's Day event in South Georgia at Valdosta State University and shooting video of the small crowd of uniformed soldiers. From the stage, the names of military personnel who have been killed in action were being read. I wasn't paying any particular attention to the names. They were strangers to me. But then I heard a haunting name that chilled me down to my core. "1st Lieutenant David Wright from Moore, Oklahoma". I stopped dead in my tracks and my eyes welled up as I thought of his family and that letter he wrote.
We all float through life and question its meaning from time to time. But a life lived with purpose, is a life well lived, even if it's cut tragically short. Lt. David Wright died at just 26 years old and his parents had to bury their only son. But I believe his legacy will far outlive his Earthly remains. Because his mission has fueled my quest and who knows how many countless others he touched in the ranks of his fellow soldiers and the citizens in the villages of Kandahar.
As journalists we meet so many amazing people in our work. It is impossible not to be inspired by their stories of courage and compassion. I like to think of these people as little torches we carry with us, fueling our drive with their fire. But there is no shortage of evil in this world, and that's where it becomes so important to follow the example set by people like Lt. Wright, who did not allow himself to be swayed by the prejudices of others.
As journalists working in local television news, we don't have the opportunity to report very many stories about the followers of Islam, but we do report stories about crime and scandals virtually everyday. It's all too easy to cast judgement on the characters in our stories and write them off as mere headlines. But we have to remember that a person is not defined by the neighborhood they live in, nor a single act in their life. We have to remember that these are real people we are reporting on. And people are flawed. They have a past, a present and a future.
That's why as journalists we all need to make the conscious effort to look beyond the headlines and see the characters in our stories for what they really are: people, just like you and me.