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By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, by Lynsey Addario; Penguin Press (368 pages, $29.95)
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It would be easy for “normal” people to conclude that journalists chronicling war and disaster are anything but.

Why would anyone in his or her right mind leave the comfort of middle-class America or Europe to document the savagery inflicted by Islamic terrorists on any Western hostage they can get their hands on? Or to witness the sadistic mutilation of rival factions’ women in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Only someone a little crazy does that, the uninitiated might conclude. Or bent on basking in the glory of capturing an iconic image with wanton disregard for one’s own mortality. But such assumptions are a superficial and unfair reading of a journalist’s motivation to bring the reality of suffering, instability and injustice to the consciousness of those who might be moved to try to right the world’s wrongs.

In Lynsey Addario’s memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War, precociously undertaken before she turned 40, she endeavors to explain the “why?”

She takes the reader through a decade of violence in Afghanistan and Iraq after Sept. 11, 2001, then on to the Arab Spring. As if to set the record straight on the death-wish allegation, Addario opens her story with a harrowing account of being trapped between the rebels and Moammar Kadafi’s gunmen in the chaotic months before the Libyan leader was captured and executed.

“I hadn’t covered Tunisia and Egypt, because I was on assignment in Afghanistan, and it had pained me to miss such important moments in history. I wasn’t going to miss Libya,” Addario writes of one of the most powerful drivers that compel journalists to downgrade potential danger.

She and three other veteran conflict journalists were taken captive by Kadafi’s gunmen, who bound and blindfolded them for the hourslong ride in the back of a pickup during which the men were punched and rifle-butted and Addario was fondled. The Libyan experience conveys effectively the judgment lapses and regrets that consume journalists when they ignore the ever-present subconscious hazard detector.

Failure to heed those warnings is an occupational hazard, especially for female journalists traveling with male colleagues. Addario expresses throughout the memoir her aversion to being seen as “the girl,” more easily scared and inclined to leave the scene.

“The fact is that trauma and risk taking hadn’t become scarier over the years; it had become more normal,” she writes of her oscillating regret and resignation during the detention at a Kadafi prison and guesthouse.

Like Addario, I have a husband who is a journalist and understands the compulsion to cover the consequences of U.S. foreign-policy decisions. “Promise me you won’t do anything stupid,” my husband would say to me as I was leaving. And I’d try not to dwell too much on broken promises as I clung to a Haitian motorbike driver taking me on a slalom ride through burning tire barricades.

Addario seldom waxes remorseful in her richly illustrated memoir except when acknowledging the emotional trauma imposed on those who care about her. She recalls the year her mother fell into a coma after a car accident: “My family chose not to tell me, because I was far away and there was nothing I could do.”

Then there are the professional disappointments that inevitably afflict writers and photographers seeking to present a truthful image that military public affairs officers feel duty-bound to suppress. Addario’s devastating moment came after a grueling two-month embed with U.S. forces in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. A disturbing image she had taken of a young boy injured in a U.S. bombing raid was left out of the published photo essay for the New York Times Magazine because “the editor trusted the U.S. military public affairs officer — whose main responsibility was to polish the image of the U.S. military to the greater public — over us,” Addario recalls with a bitterness lingering seven years later.

She also recounts the deaths of colleagues that have saddened and shocked her, including the New York Times‘ Anthony Shadid, who had been among the trio with which she was taken hostage in Libya. He died in February 2012 from an acute asthma attack while making his way out of Syria.

Addario’s memoir is replete with the downsides of witnessing war and chronicling its myriad tragedies, all of which leaves the reader struggling with “why?”

Her answers are vague, as reflected in the memoir’s title. There is little historical context in the memoir, and Addario herself seems mystified by what she sees at times.

The book, though, doesn’t aspire to make sense of our violence-wracked world. It is narrowly focused on explaining photojournalism and the psychic rewards of influencing policymakers. She conveys well her unstated mission to stir the emotions of people like herself, born into relative security and prosperity, nudging them out of their comfort zones with visual evidence of horrors they might do something about. It is a diary of an empathetic young woman who makes understanding the wider world around her a professional calling.

By the end of her memoir, Addario slows ever so briefly to have a child with the man she marries after a minutely detailed decade of relationship misfires. Still, she returns to the scenes of chaos and violence, burdened anew with the fears that her young son will grow up motherless.

“As a war correspondent and a mother, I’ve learned to live in two different realities … but it’s my choice,” she concludes. “I choose to live in peace and witness war — to experience the worst in people but to remember the beauty.”

It’s what she does.
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Williams has been a foreign correspondent since 1984, covering the Eastern Europe revolutions as well as the violent rebellions and wars in the former Yugoslav republics, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine.

Photo: Harumi Ueda via Flickr

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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