Dealing with kidnapping


We are in an era when shocking events and situations seem to be all around us. Partly, this is because there are more shocking things occurring, as people realise that modern communications allow them to use shock and terror as a weapon in international affairs. But partly it is also because those very same modern communications—television, the internet, mobile phones, digital cameras—allow us or force us to be aware of more of the shocking things that have always been happening.

An aspect of this that has been especially noticeable during the past year or so has been the increased use of kidnapping as a tool, by small groups of fighters, to try to influence policy in various ways, assisted by instant worldwide communication of their demands and of the awful reality of imprisonment. The seizure in Iraq of citizens of all nationalities—Japanese, Filipino, Italian, British, American, Korean, Nepalese—has been extremely frightening, particularly given that some of the hostages have then been executed.

People just like us, doing a job, a job that needs to be done if Iraq is to be rebuilt and to recover, are kidnapped, terrified and in some cases killed. We can all feel a personal relationship to such a shocking experience, including when we do the same sort of jobs as those who are kidnapped. In my case, of course, I feel a relationship with the journalists, and with any editor who finds that people writing for him or her have been kidnapped, and who inevitably feels both partly responsible for what has happened and powerless to intervene.

Fortunately, few of the demands made by kidnappers have actually been met. The Philippines removed soldiers a little early following a kidnapping, but that is just about the only case. (We can’t know, however, whether in some cases money has been paid, for it is kept confidential.) That at least holds out the possibility that after some time the enthusiasm for kidnapping will fade away, if it has been shown not to work.

Like the general question of whether a stable, democratic society can be built in Iraq, we will only get an answer to that question by waiting, perhaps even waiting several years. Meanwhile, though, we ought to examine not just the reaction to kidnappings from governments, concerning their policy. We should examine the reaction in society as a whole.

For me, one of the most shocking events that have taken place since the US-led invasion of Iraq took place in Japan. This was the reaction among some parts of the Japanese public to the kidnapping of three Japanese aid workers in Iraq, and their subsequent liberation. The reaction was not, of course, universal. But I still found it shocking to read that these unfortunate young people were greeted with so much hostility when they returned to Japan, seemingly for having caused trouble by having gone to Iraq and put themselves in danger.

This was shocking to me because it showed such a lack of human compassion, but also because it was so selfish, in global terms. Those taking that hostile view were saying, in effect, that Japanese should not have anything to do with poor, troubled places that are far away. They should stay at home and mind their own business, rather than meddling in that of the poor and war-torn. Yet these aid workers were bravely trying to help other people, at the risk of their own lives.

There was also some danger of that sort of hostile sentiment in France at the end of August when two French journalists were kidnapped and threatened with execution if France did not rescind its legal ban on Muslim girls’ wearing of headscarves in French schools. There was an initial wave of horror, or outrage, at the thought that France was not being rewarded for having opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq by having its citizens treated as friends rather than kidnapping targets.

In the end, however, that reaction, which risked condoning kidnapping and execution as long as the targets were American or from its recent allies, faded away and was replaced by something rather more inspiring. French people appeared to unite in opposition to the kidnappers’ demands, whether Muslim or Christian. Muslim groups in particular played a fine role by saying publicly that they accept the headscarf ban, that they accept that France is a secular society, and that they too reject the kidnappers’ demands.

There is no way in which we can find out, with any clarity or certainty, what motivates criminals and killers such as the kidnapping groups in Iraq. We cannot know whether that French solidarity played any real role in persuading the kidnappers NOT TO EXECUTE the two French journalists, as they had done a few days earlier with Enzo Baldoni, a brave, pacifist, Italian journalist.

What we can be clear about, however, is that social solidarity against such cruel and brutal crimes is the right reaction to have, and that it is likelier to discourage future kidnappings than to encourage them. In that respect, the French public reaction was, on balance, a more positive and helpful one than that to the returning hostages in Japan.

Kidnapping is a tactic that can be used anywhere in the world. It is not exclusive to Iraq. As a way to raise ransom money it is very common in Mexico and Colombia, for example. It could, though, also easily spread to other countries, whether in Asia or Europe, and could be used for more political rather than financial motives.

The primary necessity in dealing with that tactic is for governments to take a tough line, refusing to give in to the kidnappers’ demands. But society as a whole also has an important secondary role to play. If the public reacts to the kidnapping by condemning the victims rather than the kidnappers, or calls for the kidnappers demands to be met, or perhaps treats kidnapping as a legitimate weapon to be used against anyone except people of their own nationality, then the public will be making it likelier that more kidnapping will take place in future.

The world is, at times, a shocking and frightening place. We all, however, have a role to play in preventing it from become even more shocking and frightening in future.