Many people who would otherwise have been executed are alive because of John Conroy’s journalism.
The longtime Chicago Reader writer, who was let go along with fellow stalwarts Steve Bogira, Tori Marlan and Harold Henderson in December 2007, exposed the torture of more than 100 black men in Area 2 by Jon Burge and his underlings.
The methods used to extract false confessions were vicious, gruesome and identical to tactics used during apartheid-era South Africa: the application of a wet bag over victims’ heads; the shocking of testicles; and straightforward beatings.
While riding his 1982 bicycle on the West Side, Conroy was beaten by a black man.
The ironies are multiple, and he examines them in unsparing detail and typically direct prose. He concludes, with the help of my former teacher and his neighbor Alex Kotlowitz, that race was involved in the beating, but not racism in the sense that he does not believe that his attacker thought his race was superior to Conroy’s.
The story includes what a head on shot of Conroy in what must be shortly after the attack.
His response to the event is typically courageous.
Conroy has written about torture in Chicago, Northern Ireland and the West Bank in Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, a book I have not yet read.
Readers interested in his earlier Northern Ireland work should read Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life.
As the name suggests, the book is set in a bitterly divided Belfast in the early 80s. Conroy, who himself is of Irish descent, spends months in the city and the country after having won a prestigious Alicia Patterson Fellowship. He later returns to round out his reporting.
The book is noteworthy for its sensitive depiction of how both sides of what seemed then to be an implacable conflict actually became more and more similar, for its nuanced understanding of the country’s history, myth and sense of war as a way of life, and for its notion that violence was helpful in advancing progress.
Much has changed in Northern Ireland since Conroy’s book was published.
What has not changed, though, is the attention to detail, compassion, and intelligence of this beaten, but not bowed journalist