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December 1, 2004

Feeding the Iraq Moloch


by Ilana Mercer

For a short time, the badly mutilated body of a Western woman found in the ruins of Fallujah gave hope to Margaret Hassan's family and friends. The unidentified Jane Doe, you see, had blond hair, while hostage Hassan was a brunette. But hope was dashed when images of the British aid worker being shot by her captors surfaced on videotape.

We still don't know the identity of the dead blond. And our skittish media hounds are unlikely to bother trying to pick up her scent. Just another dead hostage. It has become abundantly clear, however, that hostage-taking is now as integral to "free" Iraq as the modern ruins.

Margaret Hassan and deceased fellow hostages Kenneth Bigley and Kim Sun-Il begged governments for their lives. But these were the entities least willing to haggle. As poignant as their pleas might have been, they had already been doomed by merciless moral "experts." Any negotiation, much less capitulation, we are instructed, serves only to increase the frequency of kidnapping by increasing the value of hostages.

This strictly utilitarian argument (it involves no ethical considerations) proceeds exclusively from Pavlovian principles. Ivan Pavlov proved that rewards produce behavioral repetition ... with dogs. Alas, when B.F. Skinner applied the bow-wow, black-box model to humans, predictability was greatly reduced.

No doubt, in countless ways barbarian beheaders are indeed like the dogs they so despise, with an exception. While Kibbles 'n Bits are an inducement sufficient to make a dog do just about anything, human motivation, as even "experts" will agree, is rather more complex.

As The Australian has reported, the longest-held Western hostages marked their 100th day in captivity. The two French reporters, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, were "abducted along with their Syrian driver Mohammed al-Jundi." U.S. troops found al-Jundi two weeks ago in Fallujah. Unlike Margaret Hassan, and the unidentified blond woman, he was very much alive. Unlike his French companions, he was free (or as free as one can be in Iraq).

The significance of this? Kidnapping (of foreigners and natives) is booming in Iraq, according to BBC News, but Muslims are more likely to be released unharmed than Westerners, especially if the former are not involved in activities that could be considered to be propping up the American puppet regime. When Egyptian diplomat Mohamed Mamdouh Qutb was freed July 26, his kidnappers cited Qutb's "religious faith and moral qualities" as justifications. Westerners, on the other hand, are "being sold up the chain" (to pitiless ideological terrorists) by "Ali Baba" opportunists.

Clearly, there is a method in the body snatchers’ madness; they victimize some (Westerners) more than others (Muslims).

As I've written previously in this space, I believe that governments have a duty to negotiate for the lives of their citizens. The failure of the invasion of Iraq (the second wrong that didn't make right the first: Saddam's cruelty) is all the more reason to redouble the effort to save, not squander, further lives. But I utterly reject any implication that I favor negotiating with terrorists because it increases the likelihood of a unilateral American withdrawal.

Let's get straight the order of events: first came the invasion and its concomitant wanton devastation of life and property – Iraqi and American. The hostage-takings followed. With its preemptive, aggressive, and unwarranted strike, the U.S. conceived (unintentionally – I know, I know) the chaos and anarchy that created a comparative advantage for Iraqi gangsters.

But, of course, hostage-taking is not unknown in America. Not unknown, but rare. Why? Because we refuse to negotiate? Hardly. Rather because we enjoy the benefits of law and order.

As did Iraq Before Bush.

In Iraq After Bush, the Iraqis are simply expendable. They are too poor to pay ransom and are insufficiently picturesque to raise the political profiles of their captors. In Iraq's murder market, foreigners fetch top dollar. But if we removed the outsiders – the occupying, meddling third parties – we would also remove the pool of hostages and ransom-payers that sustains this evil agora.

Let's leave aside (for the moment) the question of whether the invasion of Iraq was unjust and unattainable or merely mistaken and misguided. Why must we continue to feed this false idol with more lives? What does this make us? Worshippers of Moloch or mere fools?

Those who don't see this, have, in my opinion, drifted into a false consciousness – they have embraced ideology instead of reality. Worse still, they have abandoned enlightened self-interest by mistakenly conflating their own interests and those of their fellow Americans with George W. Bush's febrile fantasies.

The practical and patriotic things for us to do are to salvage American resources – lives and lucre – pay the Iraqis baksheesh, and then vamoose. Until that happy day, ransoming our hostages is a moral duty.

Negotiation, of course, does not mean capitulation. Policemen often negotiate with the intention of flushing out criminals. In Iraq, a case-by-case approach is best. Take the prisoners known as "Dr. Germ" and "Mrs. Anthrax." When captured, they were in the employ of what was still a sovereign nation at the time. (I'm still waiting to hear how it is that the U.S. decides which nations are sovereign and hence immune from invasion, and which are not and hence subject to American "liberation.") The WMD the women were alleged to have worked on were never found. The evidence against them was nothing greater than their inclusion in the set of "most-wanted" playing cards. Who could remain poker-faced in the face of such a damning indictment! So it would have been just to exchange "Dr. Germ" and "Mrs. Anthrax" for Kenneth Bigley and Margaret Hassan, as the terrorists demanded.

Again, American (and British) police maintain hostage-negotiation teams with well-developed protocols. They bargain with domestic abductors daily. So why not outside the U.S. (and the UK)?

Those who bend over backward to excuse Blair's and Bush's indifference to the fate of the hostages ought to acquaint themselves with the FBI's mandate. Its Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU) is authorized to "deploy overseas to assist in the management of kidnapping situations involving U.S. citizens." How about that! "The FBI is considered the negotiation arm of the United States government for international incidents. Since 1990, the CNU has deployed to over 100 such incidents worldwide."

So now we know that the United States government had no justification in refusing to attempt to secure the release of Jack Hensley, Eugene Armstrong, and Nick Berg. Or Kenneth Bigley – the FBI has an exchange program with the British government, which maintains its own equivalent of the CNU.

Does anyone doubt that if the First Twins (or Euan and Nicholas Blair) were abducted abroad, a host of new "experts" would pop up to persuade us that negotiating with their captors would be a very good idea indeed?

We all pray, of course, that America will never be subjected to such an ordeal. In the absence of such a test of Western resolve, however, Western hostages will continue to die needlessly. As Thomas Szasz observed, "Two wrongs don't make a right, but they make a good excuse" – for a third wrong.


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Ilana Mercer is a contributor to Antiwar.com. Her new book is Broad Sides: One Woman’s Clash With A Corrupt Culture. To learn more about Ilana and her work, please visit her website.

 

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