The Kidnap Weapon

Bill Safire argues that we’ve seen the arrival of “The Kidnap Weapon,” a new political force to be reckoned with:

The Zarqawi terrorist network in Iraq has developed a powerful new weapon. It requires no munitions and no suicide zealots, runs no risk to terrorists of death or capture and provides cash to finance other operations. The weapon is publicized kidnapping. Pictures of helpless captives begging for their lives trigger worldwide coverage of tearful families begging for mercy. Films sometimes conclude with a sadistic Zarqawi slowly sawing off the heads of his victims. For the psychological warriors, it is a win-win tactic. If the ransom is paid by a private contractor, the extorted cash buys rockets and mortars. If the ransom is paid by a government withdrawing its troops, the terrorist diplomatic victory dispirits the rest of the coalition. If the ransom is not paid, then the film of the hostages’ beheading strikes fear into the heart of the morbidly fascinated viewer.

The kidnap weapon does not always produce the propaganda results the killers want. John Burns of The Times noted from Baghdad on PBS’s “NewsHour” that the grisly murders fill civilized Iraqis with a deep disgust. They remind many of the hand-chopping and tongue-cutting methods used by Saddam’s goons to suppress resistance. But this also frightens many Iraqis, and manipulates the media to intimidate millions abroad whose support is needed to defeat the terrorists

This is all correct, although the phenomenon isn’t really all that new. Terrorists have been using similar tactics since well before the word “terrorist” was coined. The Thugees were doing much the same thing in the 7th century. Really, the only thing that has changed is the rise of the Internet and other means of decentralized mass communication.

Safire is not quite sure what we should do about it but he’s concerned that all the attention these beheadings get serves the agenda of the kidnappers:

Sensationalism sells; on TV, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Audiences are surely drawn to tearful interviews with worried spouses and children. Bloggers get “hits” from posting the most gruesome pictures. Cable ratings rise by milking the pathos in the drama created by the Zarqawi network: first comes the kidnapping report; then televised pleas from the kneeling, doomed innocents; then coverage of marches and vigils to plead for the payment of ransom; finally, in one case out of four, the delivery of dismembered bodies and gleeful claim of blame.


We know, too, that the kidnap weapon is aimed at the U.S. election. What we do not know is how its heavily publicized use will cut. Will Americans react to all-kidnap-all-the-time by being revolted at the savagery and turn to the candidate determined to wipe out the barbarians? Or will we be so revolted as to think Iraqis are hopelessly uncivilized or beaten down, and turn to the candidate who will get us out of there the fastest?

John Kerry, who has evidently decided to replace Howard Dean as the antiwar candidate, last weekend helped to magnify the terrorists’ kidnap weapon. In a scheduled commercial Kerry personally approved, just before charging that George Bush had no plan to get us out of Iraq, the Democratic campaign underscored the message Zarqawi has been sending: “Americans,” said Kerry’s announcer, “are being kidnapped, held hostage, even beheaded.” Though undoubtedly accurate, that paid evocation of horror by a political candidate is a terrible blunder. That’s the sort of emotional appeal you would expect from President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines who pulled 51 troops out of Iraq, caving to the demand of kidnappers, emboldening them to grab fresh victims. It’s bad enough for some thoughtless media outlets to become an echo chamber for scare propaganda; it’s worse when the nominee of a major party approves its use to press his antiwar candidacy.

While I don’t disagree that giving the beheadings attention is what the terrorists want, I’m not sure that it follows that would should ignore them. None of the major media outlets, so far as I know, are actually playing the videos or showing still photographs of severed heads. Some blogs are, although doing so isn’t necessary if one’s desire is “hits,” since one doesn’t Google videos but rather words.

Kerry’s reference to the beheadings in his advertising is somewhat lame, in that it focuses on isolated events at the expense of the big picture, but it seems like a legitimate topic of discussion. Of course, if the point of an ad is that a president should not air ads making light of his opponent when there are beheadings going on, it would behoover said opponent to refrain from making near-simultaneous appearances on the Letterman.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.