DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. When my guest, journalist Souad Mekhennet, chooses to go and conduct an interview, it can be a life-or-death decision. She spent much of the past 15 years reporting on Islamic extremist groups, and she's interviewed leaders of al-Qaida, the Taliban and ISIS, some of the world's most wanted men.
Mekhennet grew up as a Muslim in Germany, and she's interested in understanding what jihadists think and how they appeal to disaffected young Muslims around the world. Besides speaking to members of radical organizations, she's interviewed many of their recruits in the Middle East and Europe. Mekhennet has reported on terrorism for The New York Times and is now a national security correspondent for The Washington Post. Through her reporting, she uncovered the identity of Jihadi John, the masked ISIS fighter featured in several beheading videos. Souad Mekhennet has written three previous books. Her latest is "I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind The Lines Of Jihad."
Well, Souad Mekhennet, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, in this book, you describe a meeting with an ISIS leader known as Abu Yousef.
SOUAD MEKHENNET: Yeah.
DAVIES: Who was he? What was his role in ISIS?
MEKHENNET: So Abu Yousef is still alive, and that's why I could not reveal his true identity. He is a young - younger man, actually, now in his I would say early 30s who grew up in Europe. His background is also of - he's of North African descent. He spoke a couple of languages fluently, and he is, within ISIS, somebody who is now one of the responsible figures for ISIS external operations. So he was pretty - is pretty high level.
And when I requested a meeting with somebody from the ISIS leadership, I had no idea who they would send. But I was absolutely surprised when I spoke to him first of all about how much knowledge he had, also about what was going on in the world. But I felt very sorry that we lost somebody into the hands of this ideology, somebody who could have had a different life.
DAVIES: I want you to talk a bit about arranging this meeting. Now, when you did this, you knew this was a group that had taken and executed journalists. You had to be concerned for your safety. How did you manage that?
MEKHENNET: So I have to say, the executions didn't happen then. It was a couple of weeks before the execution took place. But of course I knew that they had kidnapped journalists. I was - look. This was new (unintelligible) for me as well. I had covered the so-called world of jihad since 9/11, and I had encounters with people from various groups, al-Qaida as well as the Taliban and other under groups. But I had no idea what kind of, you know, group I had to deal with here. I was a little nervous because the guarantees they gave me for my safety were not as - yeah, how can I say this?
DAVIES: Ironclad (laughter).
MEKHENNET: Yeah - as the ones that I got for previous meetings with other group members. And it was a risk. I knew I was taking a big risk. I knew they had kidnapped journalists. And in fact, actually the person who did help arranging this interview told me as well, look; with those guys, if he feels that you are, for example, a spy or if you ask him a question that he does not like or it makes him suspicious, you may, you know, be in huge danger.
And I took the decision to still go ahead with it because I felt we knew not enough about this group, and there were so many different ideas. I had attended a couple of meetings with very knowledgeable people who were advising, also, the former president and who had some strange ideas about what ISIS is and what the caliphate would be. And then I said it's my duty, actually, also, to take this risk and to tell people who they are, what they think. And that's why I decided to do it.
DAVIES: So there are these arrangements. You gave your colleagues phone numbers to call in case you disappeared - not people in ISIS but others who might help. They're switching cars, you know, picking batteries out of cell phones. You finally end up in this white Honda in the passenger seat.
DAVIES: And there he is in the backseat - as you say, a very sophisticated guy. And I love that you...
DAVIES: ...Were able to determine when you spoke to him in a North African Arabic accent - to determine where he came from.
DAVIES: This was part interview, it seems, and part debate about...
MEKHENNET: It was.
DAVIES: ...The big - just give us a sense of the conversation, what you asked, what he said.
MEKHENNET: So I started first with general questions because I had to test the waters, right? I had no idea. I mean, again, I had in mind what the person who arranged the interview had told me, that he said, look; those guys - they're no joke. If they feel suspicious or if they - if you ask them a wrong question, it could end up very, very badly. And I did see that he had some kind of gun in his pocket.
So I felt, you know, very nervous and first had to ask some general questions about what the caliphate is, what the idea of the caliphate was in order to see how he would answer. And then at some stage, he spoke about jihad. And he spoke about the legitimacy of what they were doing. And I began to counter that and to tell him - I mean when I figured out that he was of a similar descent, I started to also telling him, look; what you describe as jihad is not what, for example, my grandfather had described as jihad. And there are different - there are several rules, and you're breaking all of them.
And he actually accepted that - the discussion and debate, and he - but I could see the more I debated with him and I encountered what he said, the more nervous and angry he grew. And at some stage, I felt that I had to stop because he made very clear that he was no longer - he was not accepting any kind of different view.
And this is - and this was a message that I got very, you know, very fast. We are dealing with a group that sees any person who has a different point of view - and no matter if the person is Christian, Jewish or Muslim - as an enemy. And that came across as very strong when I spoke to him, yeah.
DAVIES: Did he say anything that you weren't expecting?
MEKHENNET: Well, I was very surprised to hear the confidence he had about how well-organized and structured the caliphate was. He basically told me that the group used the turmoil of the so-called Arab Spring in order to send cells and set up different cells in different countries. He told me that there were already cells in Libya, in Tunisia, in the Gulf region and that - and also in Egypt - and that they were in fact already plotting and planning all this since 2011 - and also the arrogance that - the tone he used when he spoke about that they were absolutely certain, even if they would be attacked - which is of course happening now and for the last couple of months - that the idea and the ideology of the caliphate would live on and that they have actually planned ahead of times for all this.
DAVIES: You come from an interesting background for this work. You grew up in Germany. Your mom's from Turkey, your dad from Morocco. And your grandfather, you write, was actually in the movement for independence from France, was arrested and beaten...
DAVIES: ...And his property taken. You grew up mostly in Germany. I think when you were a little kid, you spent some time in Morocco with your grandma.
DAVIES: But growing up in Germany in a Muslim family, how much discrimination or acceptance did you feel?
MEKHENNET: When I was in my teenage years, I felt a lot of - you could say anger or discrimination because my father worked as a chef, and we lived in a very nice neighborhood in Frankfurt. And we were, to a certain - we were actually the only family of a Muslim guest worker - this is how they used to call people like my parents, guest worker - descent. And some of the kids in the neighborhood were not allowed to play with us. They said I guess partially the reason was for that because we were of, you know, guest worker background and not people who came from academia or a wealthy background, but also because we - we were Muslims.
And even though my parents tried to really push us into the society - I went to a Christian kindergarten, to a Christian after-school day care. I had lived in Morocco with my grandmother, who had Jewish neighbors. And I played with the kids there. So we grew up in a way that we actually wanted to be part of the society but felt that the society, or at least the part where we lived, didn't want us to be part of that circle. And it became a little difficult for me when I saw the houses of Turkish migrants burning in Germany in the '90s. And I really - and then also a situation where my brother and I were - a group of skinheads in a car were after my brother and I. And I was walking with my brother, who's much younger. I was in my teenage years.
And then there was this car. And a group of men started shouting, gypsies, we will kill you; we will gas you. And they were after us. And I told my brother to run. And he was this little boy. He was screaming. And he was not fast enough. So I basically lifted him up. And we ran. And if it weren't for another car that basically made some noise as well and told those guys to stop, I don't know what would have happened. And this was a very scary moment for both of us. And it was a moment where I went back home to my parents and said, pack your stuff. We have to leave. They don't want us here.
So I do understand that those kind of situations can make people vulnerable for, you know, two easy explanations. Easy explanation would have been Germans don't want us here. We need to go. Pack your stuff. But my parents as well as my godparents, who are Germans, were of course saying, this is a small group of people. If you give in, those people will win. So that's why we shouldn't do it.
DAVIES: Souad Mekhennet is a national security correspondent for The Washington Post. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Souad Mekhennet. She grew up as a Muslim in Germany and is now a national security correspondent for The Washington Post. Her new book about interviewing many participants in extremist groups is called "I Was Told To Come Alone."
You know, after the invasion in Iraq, when the Sunni insurgency really got going and extremist groups arose, you wanted to contact a sheikh named Shaker al-Absi, who had a group called Fatah al-Islam. It was one of these groups that, I guess, were affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq. You went on...
DAVIES: ...You and a New York Times reporter named Michael Moss, you reach a guy who knows the sheikh, gets him on the phone and tells you, yes, he knows who you are. He's not interested in an interview. You do something there to just try and salvage the situation. What did you do?
MEKHENNET: Well, I told Absi, OK, forget about the interview. But you know what? I came from so far away. And in our customs, as you know, a Muslim coming to another country - I just want to come for tea. Forget about the interview, but how about tea? And I was so persistent that he said he would think about it. And then he agreed to have tea, yes.
DAVIES: And you told him it would be an offense, in effect, according to local customs, to refuse a guest a cup of tea. (Laughter).
MEKHENNET: Yes, exactly.
DAVIES: So the next day, you go there. Just tell us about the scene. Who's there? What happened?
MEKHENNET: So I go into this - this refugee camp, the Palestinian refugee camp, and you have to know that this is extraterritorial (ph) you know...
DAVIES: This is in Lebanon - right? - by the way. Yeah, right.
MEKHENNET: This is in Lebanon. And the army or security services have no access into this camp. So - and I reach, with this contact person, the compound. And there are some armed men out there. And they tell me to - you know, they show me where to sit. And there are a couple of - I found myself in this room. And then there's this black flag, the flag that we know today that ISIS uses. And in one corner, there is a bazooka and the other one, an AK-47. And I just felt, wait a second. What's going on here? Because this was a scenery that I knew from some of the beheading videos, you know, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi started beheading people. This was the same scenery.
And then some men came in, and somebody sat across from me. And he was pointing his gun toward me. And I looked at my - the contact person. And he was also shocked. And then there was somebody from the media department, as they said, of Absi's group and another person. And then Absi came and his deputy. And they sat down and started an interrogation.
And I then realized, oh, this is not the kind of tea meeting I was expecting to have. And we had this conversation. They were told - they clearly had read some of the pieces I had written. And they were asking me about freedom of press and other things and if the press in the U.S. is controlled. And I, in fact, told him that, for example, nobody stopped us from writing the story of al-Masri. And in order to basically also say yes, there are days of free press and...
DAVIES: He's the guy who was captured by the CIA and then tortured in Afghanistan.
MEKHENNET: Yes. He's the person who was a renditions victim. So I tried to bring up all these arguments in order to also say look, you might see the United States or the West in one view. But, you know, this is really how reality is. And we had this interrogation situation until basically they brought the tea because I reminded them. I said, well, I thought, you know, I thought we agreed to have tea here. But I found myself in an interrogation situation.
And it was pretty intense and also very, very difficult for me to understand what would happen until I unintentionally made a joke that led to all the group laughing. When Absi's deputy asked me if I was married and I said well, no, but why are you looking for a second wife? Because whenever I said - whenever I got this question and I said no, somebody would say, well, do you want to become my second wife? And when I said this, the whole group started laughing. And it turned out that, in fact, the deputy was also Absi's son in law, which was a very awkward situation.
DAVIES: (Laughter). So the prospect of marrying right into the family, wow.
MEKHENNET: Yeah, because Absi basically turned to him and said, I don't know if my daughter would allow you to get married to second wife so soon. And you know, this was - I thought - I basically sank into the ground, and everybody was laughing. But I think it was one of the reasons why he then later accepted to give me the interview.
DAVIES: Right. So you had a conversation here at which there were no notes and then subsequent on-the-record interview. And you went over all of these issues, for example asking him how he could justify killing innocent civilians. What was his...
MEKHENNET: Well, he basically said that people in - that nobody is innocent. First of all, we talked about the situation Iraq. He said the U.S. and their allies handed over the Iraq into the hands of those Shia militias who were slaughtering Sunnis, and nobody is talking about it. He said that in the West, people are not innocent because they live in democracies, which is a voting system. And so whoever is - whoever participates in elections is also a free target. And we had this back and forth.
DAVIES: That's an interesting concept. Because it's a democracy, everyone is accountable for whatever...
DAVIES: ...The government does, yeah.
MEKHENNET: That's how they see it. And it's very - you know, Dave, that's one of the reasons why I felt, again, responsible - or not responsible but why I felt it was my responsibility as a journalist to go and talk to people like Absi. And I don't - I didn't know back then if I would make it out of this interview alive because you never know when you cross unintentionally the line where somebody has the suspicion that you are working for intelligence service or that, you know - or some other group.
But I felt that the way he explained things and when he said how he was thinking about the West could actually maybe help to find solutions for this radicalization. I think we have to understand what is going on in their hearts and minds.
DAVIES: So Americans are accountable because their government does awful things in his view. What about killing Muslims...
MEKHENNET: Well, in his...
DAVIES: ...Mass bombings, you know, yeah?
MEKHENNET: Yeah, well, in his view or in the views of other people who think like or thought like him - so any person living in a democracy is accountable because it's a voting system. And when you vote, you're part of the system. Muslims - well, if they are a part of the - for - in the case of Iraq, if they were Shia, they deserve to die because they belong to the sect that is also torturing Sunnis and because they are in fact following the rules of Iran. This is how he thought about it.
And when it comes to Sunni Muslims, well, if they don't support the group - and it's to a certain extent also what ISIS says - if - you know, if they don't support the group, if they don't support the ideology and they happen to be killed in a bombing and - well, then, you know, bad luck.
MEKHENNET: Souad Mekhennet's book is "I Was Told To Come Alone." After a break, she'll talk about her frightening experience in an Egyptian prison and how ISIS leaders regard President Trump. Also Geoff Nunberg offers a defense of the exclamation point. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Souad Mekhennet. She's a national security correspondent for The Washington Post. Her book "I Was Told To Come Alone" details her experiences interviewing leaders of al-Qaida, the Taliban and ISIS. She grew up in a Muslim family in Germany, and she says being a Muslim woman has at times helped her to get access to jihadists who rarely speak to Western journalists.
There may be times when perhaps it gave you a level of safety to be a Muslim woman. Were there times that people in these groups resented the fact that you were a professional woman playing this role?
MEKHENNET: Well, they were certainly asking questions about that. And I then always argued that the first wife of the prophet was also a working woman. And then they kept silent because they knew that I had my answers (laughter) to those kind of questions. But yes, they were very - they were very surprised also that I was unmarried and doing all this. But to a certain extent, I think also some of them were fascinated by that.
DAVIES: What would you wear to these meetings?
MEKHENNET: I would wear - I would cover. Some of them were OK with me having, you know, a head scarf on and an abaya. Some would insist that I would have to cover my face with a niqab. So it depended on what they felt comfortable with. But usually what I would do is I would cover my hair, and I would wear my lucky abaya which I had gotten - which somebody had chosen for me once in Zarqa. He was a friend of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
And it - kind of like, I bought this abaya. And then I started wearing it all the time and - kind of like my lucky abaya. So that's the one. That's basically the abaya I'm wearing on the picture on the back of the book.
DAVIES: And this one was full of sequins. This guy who was the radical took - went to the shop and bought you this sequined, studded abaya, right?
MEKHENNET: Well, I paid for it. I insisted. But he chose it. And I was absolutely surprised that - yeah, it was - it had all these glamorous little things on it (laughter) that he chose out of all these more conservative styles, the one with, you know, the one that looked the funkiest. But yeah, I bought it. And since then, it's one of the items that I take with me when I go to different places.
DAVIES: You spoke with a senior Taliban leader in Karachi once, and - one of these things where it was a risky thing to go to. You had to be careful, you know, get rid of your cellphone, et cetera. But you have a conversation with him.
And at one point he says, you know, OK, stop writing. Let's talk about life. Now, you know, Sister Souad, I'm looking for a second wife. And he was talking about you (laughter). And it sounded like he meant it. Is this a common experience?
MEKHENNET: (Laughter) Well, I was trying to avoid - first to basically accept that he was talking about me. So yeah, it's - I basically could - I was able to talk him out of this idea, right? I told him, isn't one wife headache enough? And then we - you know, he was laughing. It happened quite a lot of time, quite often that some of those guys would ask me to get married to them.
And I then just, you know, say that my parents have a word to say in the decision, you know, for what kind of husband I would choose, which, of course, they know is not true. But they also understand that it means no. And it's just really, really interesting because I asked them all these tough questions.
It's - I don't go easy on them, and they still have this idea of asking to get married. And in the case of the Taliban commander, this whole - it had a very interesting - it was a very interesting situation because his wife got pregnant with twin daughters, and he named one of them after me. But then one day I get this phone call, and he's basically saying - he's asking me, listen, I want to ask you, when you were a baby, were you a nice child?
MEKHENNET: And I said, well, I don't know. I guess so, yes. And he said, well, I don't think so. And I said, why? And he told me, well, this - you know, this one child, she's an angel. The one we gave a different name, she's an angel. She sleeps. She listens. She eats. She's silent. But the one we named after you, she's just a devil. She screams the whole time. She is - she has her own head. And I said, well, I didn't tell you to name her after me, right? That's what you get. So - and this is just a - it was just a very surreal, surreal situation.
But I also confronted him with how they treat women. I confronted him with the question of why they were throwing acid into the faces of women and why they would dare to tell women not to go to school and what this had to do with Islam. And he was willing to take on the questions. I mean, it wasn't - he didn't necessarily give me logical answers, but he listened and gave me his answers.
DAVIES: And the answers were this is what the prophet would want and - or what?
MEKHENNET: Well, no. Actually, he knew that I would - that we were - we reached a point, you know, when I - we had this dinner, this barbecue meeting where I - where he knew he cannot come with this easy answer, this is what the prophet want.
Because I would have told him, well, all the wives of the prophet were strong women. And the first wife was, in fact, a business woman. So he told me that - he showed me his hand. And he said, look, are all the fingers on this hand the same? And I said no. And he said and this is how it is with our group.
I - he told me that he actually liked smart women and that his wife had studied as well and that he wanted his daughters to study. And he told me that there are people in - within the group who indeed would not want to see their daughters study and who would do this kind of horrible things to women but that he was different. So that's what he said.
I met his wife once, and he was right. She did study. I spoke to her. But it's not that - it's not like she's doing work now, but she did study. He was telling the truth.
DAVIES: From the book, your most traumatic experience as a reporter came not from visiting armed radicals but when you were covering demonstrations in Egypt and were arrested. Tell us what happened.
MEKHENNET: My colleague, Nick Kulish, and I, we were on our way back with our driver from Alexandria to Cairo. And then we got into a control point. And we were arrested and yeah, went through an ordeal of, like, being questioned separately. I had an interrogator who pointed, actually, also out at some stage that they did not had young, beautiful-looking women that often in their facility. And it signaled to me that something very bad might happen.
Also, I was actually worried of, you know, being raped that night. And then, some men came. And he told me, well, they will have to blindfold you. And he also wouldn't tell us where - or tell me where we were. He made the statement that you're nowhere, so nobody will find you. And when they came and they said they would have to blindfold me and take me to another place, I could hear a woman screaming from far away.
And there was - they gave me a couple of minutes. I told them I had to use the bathroom - and allowed me to go into the bathroom. And I looked into the mirror and said, no matter what happens now, it's not your soul. It's your body, but it's not - you will not allow them to take your soul because I was worried that, you know, they would rape me.
They blindfolded me, and they passed me by this room where the woman was screaming. And somebody was very close by and made some awkward noise, you know, towards my ear. And I was just trying to keep calm and not to allow them to break me. And at some - after spending the night there at the prison, they handed us over to a different group.
We thought we would go to the hotel, but then we had men telling us that they would, you know, kill us. And I had guns pointed at my head and went through another round of interrogations. And I thought that was it. I thought they would make us disappear. And yeah...
DAVIES: This was a very chaotic time in Egypt, and a lot of people did disappear, right?
MEKHENNET: It was a very chaotic time. And we had heard - I mean, this was 2011, when the protests were ongoing. And we had heard that women were raped and - by whoever, different groups. And it was one of the fears I had. But also, we heard that people disappeared.
We had seen people - we had to count the bodies of killed protesters at some stage. So it was very - yeah, it was very, very difficult also to deal with the trauma afterwards. But I - we decided to get back to Egypt after a couple of weeks.
DAVIES: There was a moment when it was clear that they were going to release you. But your driver, your Egyptian driver, who I think you called Z (ph)...
DAVIES: ...Was not going to be released.
DAVIES: What did you do then?
MEKHENNET: My colleague, Nick Kulish, and I, we discussed it. And we said we - and I discussed it with the driver. And the driver said, if you leave me behind here, they're going to kill me. And there's no - you know, I have family. And I - Nick and I, we agreed that we would try our level best to take him with us.
So I told one of the interrogators - and don't ask me why. I was actually really, really tired, and we were under stress the whole time. But I just told him, look, to me the life of an Egyptian is worth as much as the life of a German and American, so we are not going to leave here without the driver. And then also, Nick gave the driver a couple of bags and said, look - said to the interrogator, if doesn't carry them, you guys have to carry them.
So they finally agreed to take - that we could - that he could go with us. But we also had to take care of him afterwards. When we left the country, we just made sure that he was - he and his family were living somewhere - not in the apartment where they usually stayed. And we checked in and made sure that he was safe and protected, yeah.
DAVIES: Souad Mekhennet is a national security correspondent for The Washington Post. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Souad Mekhennet. She was raised as a Muslim in Germany, and she is now a national security correspondent for The Washington Post. Her book about her experiences interviewing many leaders of the Taliban and ISIS is called, "I Was Told To Come Alone."
You know, years ago, you say in the book, you were pondering this question by a widow of the 9/11 attacks about, why do the jihadis hate us so. And you said that's an important question. And you've devoted a lot of years, in many ways, to trying to find answers for it. And I know this is a big question, but I wonder if you could just share some of your insights on that question and, you know, what Westerners and the media and policymakers should do to make a difference.
MEKHENNET: So, Dave, what I found out is that there's not one answer. There are many answers to the question, why do they hate us so much. But one is that, for example, when we talk about Western societies, discrimination or discriminating Muslims is not going to help to make our world safer. We have to actually understand that Muslims are also part of the solutions, that Muslims are as much victims of groups such as ISIS or al-Qaida and the Taliban. I would actually say, if you look at the numbers, the numbers of Muslims who are victims are much higher than the numbers of people in our part of the world that are victims.
But - so words matter. And in fact, if people think that they can't - that blaming a whole religion is really the answer to the question why those people are radicalized, then that's way too easy answer. And it's not right. It's not true because, in fact, those guys - when I sit with them, when I sit with members of ISIS or al-Qaida, they don't talk to me about religion. They talk about politics first.
And I would actually say that, in fact, they are the ones who radicalize religion because they use or choose religion to justify what they are doing. And when we say that it's the religion that is pushing people to become radicalized, we, in fact, are playing into the hands of those recruiters. So I would say that - I would argue that if we want - we have to take on the - you know, the narratives that groups such as ISIS or al-Qaida are using. When they use the example of Khalid El-Masri and others who have been victims of secret detention centers to say that the West is hypocrite and is not really - is preaching on one hand human rights but not living up to their own standards, then, you know, yes, it - those are discussions we would - we rather would not like to have but we must have them because if we don't have them, the recruiters are going to have them with those who are raising the questions.
DAVIES: You know, you mentioned that discrimination against Muslims actually feeds the recruitment of radical groups. And, you know, we do have a president here who has advocated a travel ban on some Muslim countries. It's under dispute in the courts.
He also said during the campaign in talking about ISIS, we're going to have to be so vicious. He talked about bringing back torture, referred to killing the families of terrorist leaders. And I'm wondering how you think this is playing both among ISIS leaders and among those who might be susceptible to their appeals.
MEKHENNET: Well, I think that I'm looking at those statements from different perspectives. Well, as a matter of fact, I know from people within ISIS that they have been cutting and pasting some of the statements President Trump made during the campaign and are using those in order to show Muslims in the West, look, this is how Western leaders are thinking about your religion and about you. And you will never be part of the society. So they are using some of those statements for their recruitment, which is, of course, very dangerous. So it does play into the hands of ISIS and al-Qaida definitely.
DAVIES: Well, Souad Mekhennet, thank you for your reporting. Hope you can stay safe. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
MEKHENNET: Thank you.
DAVIES: Souad Mekhennet is a national security correspondent for The Washington Post. Her new book is "I Was Told To Come Alone: My Journey Behind The Lines Of Jihad." Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg tells us the exclamation point gets a bad rap. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Ask writers and editors what's the most annoying feature of online communication and they'll likely tell you it's the abuse of the exclamation point, but our linguist Geoff Nunberg says people have been complaining about over use of the exclamation since Victorian times. In Geoff's opinion, the mark gets a bad rap.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: The only literary work about punctuation I'm aware of is an odd early story by Chekhov called "The Exclamation Mark." After getting into an argument with a colleague about punctuation, a school inspector named Yefim Perekladin asks his wife what an exclamation point is for. She tells him it signifies delight, indignation, joy and rage. He realizes that in 40 years of writing official reports, he's never had the need to express any of those emotions.
As he obsesses about the mark, it becomes an apparition that haunts his waking life, mocking him as an unfeeling machine. In desperation, he signs his name in a visitor's book and puts three exclamation points after it. All of a sudden, Chekhov writes, he felt the light in indignation. He was joyful and seethed with rage. Yefim Perekladin, c'est moi.
At least, I used to be one of those people who used the exclamation point as sparingly as possible. We'll grudgingly stick one in after an interjection or a sentence like what a jerk but never to punch up an ordinary sentence in an essay or email. We say we're saving them for special occasions but they never seem to arise. The written language provides us with a dozen or so punctuation marks to clarify our meaning but only one that conveys our feelings about what we're saying, yet the exclamation point gets no love at all.
Apple Computer forbids its distributors to put it in their ads. The British school curriculum penalizes students for using it. There's a blog called "Excessive Exclamation!!" that documents its misuse. It wasn't always so disreputable. Melville and Hawthorne used it freely. But by the late 19th century, it had become the staple of lurid novels and the sensational yellow press, whose printers called it a screamer, a shriek or a bang.
Ever since then, self-respecting authors have regarded the wanton use of exclamation points as illiterate and slightly vulgar. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that it was like laughing at your own joke. The mark was banished to the literary margins. Manual typewriters didn't even give it a key of its own. You had to type a period, then backspace, then type an apostrophe, by which time any spontaneous excitement would have fizzled away.
It lived most of its life on the pulp paper of Nancy Drew mysteries and "Superman" comics. Tom Wolfe and Roy Lichtenstein made it the emblem of pop culture kitsch - pow, wham, varoom. To be sure, most people pay no attention to the qualms of editors and grammarians. They've always used exclamation points freely in their letters and diaries. Nobody found that alarming until the marks began to surface in emails and texts.
Critics suddenly discerned a plague, an exclamation point addiction that copy editors called bangorrhea (ph). The impression's understandable. Exclamation points have become so obligatory in email that it can sound brusque to merely write see you then, period. People scatter them with abandon in text and tweets to convey friendliness, surprise or indignation. Others use them for pure emphasis. They write their message in all caps, then hold down the exclamation point key to string them out to the end of the line like a row of air horns.
Of course, the more the bangs pile up, the more numbing they become. But the moral panic may be overdone. We're not talking about The New York Times, after all. Text and tweets are just an extension of spoken language. We punctuate them to capture the way we talk, and we aren't always going to use our indoor voices.
I think of the "Seinfeld" episode where Elaine and her boyfriend broke up after he took down a phone message that her friend Myra had had a baby without putting an exclamation point at the end.
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JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine Benes) Well, see right here? You wrote, Myra had the baby - but you didn't use an exclamation point.
MARTY RACKHAM: (As Jake) So?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine Benes) So it's - yeah, it's nothing. Forget it. Forget it. You know, I just found it curious.
RACKHAM: (As Jake) What's so curious about it?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine Benes) Well, I mean, if one of your close friends had a baby and I left you a message about it, I would use an exclamation point.
RACKHAM: (As Jake) Well, maybe I don't use my exclamation points as haphazardly as you do.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine Benes) You don't think that someone having a baby warrants an exclamation point?
RACKHAM: (As Jake) Hey, look. I just jotted down the message. I didn't know that I was required to capture the mood of each caller.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine Benes) I just thought that you'd be a little more excited about a friend of mine having a baby.
RACKHAM: (As Jake) OK, I'm excited. I just don't happen to like exclamation points.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine Benes) Well, you know, Jake you should learn to use them. Like the way I'm talking right now? I would put exclamation points at the ends of all these sentences - on this one and on that one.
RACKHAM: (As Jake) Well, you can put one on this one - I'm leaving.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine Benes, laughter).
NUNBERG: You could think of that exchange as a skirmish in an orthographic gender war. Exclamation points have always been seen as expressions of girlish gushiness, and Jake's aversion to them suggest a certain horror of emotional display. As it happens, the research shows that women do use them more than men in online communication, chiefly to signal friendliness. That might suggest that some people aren't using them enough, yet writers and editors only pride themselves on expunging the marks, never on sticking them in.
When it comes to exclamation points, the only virtue we recognize is self-restraint. Look at the lengths people go to to find work-arounds to avoid them. Some suggest replacing them with more descriptive language. Instead of saying, see you there with an exclamation point, you can write, I'm so looking forward to seeing you, period - at the expense of replacing one skinny character with a couple of dozen fat ones.
Others suggest that rather than a effusing over some bit of news, you can add an animated GIF of Shirley Temple clapping her hands and let her do it for you. Or you can separate your words with what I think of as power periods as in best - period - party - period - ever, each one a little puff of certitude. But at that point, avoiding an exclamation point becomes more of a fetish than using one. I dropped my reservations a while ago.
Now, I use the marks as abundantly as I did when I was 12. Like Chekov's Perekladin, I didn't come to appreciate them till later in life, but I figure I might as well go out with a bang.
DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at the University of California Berkeley School of Information. On tomorrow's show...
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Please welcome Seth Meyers.
DAVIES: ...We broadcast Terry's onstage interview with Seth Meyers, host of "Late Night With Seth Meyers," former head writer for "Saturday Night Live" and host of their news parody Weekend Update. His interview is part of our 30th anniversary celebration. I hope you can join us.
And this note - in the introduction to our interview yesterday with Mark Bowden about the Battle of Hue in the Vietnam War, we played the clip from 1968 of a battlefield interview which took place during the fourth day of that 26-day battle, but we misidentified the CBS correspondent who filed that report. That correspondent was John Laurence.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "I MEAN YOU")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "I MEAN YOU")
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