Opinion The Kidnap Weapon

The Zarqawi terrorist network's new weapon has allowed it to play the press like a violin. By WILLIAM SAFIRE

Washington - 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.

Nobody should order reporters and editors to "downplay" a gut-wrenching human interest story involving cruelty, violence and death. Nor should the media flinch from covering casualty counts or honoring the fallen. War involves sacrifice.

But responsible journalists should consider the wisdom of allowing media-savvy terrorists to play them like a violin.

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.

Do we have to become conduits for this grisly, real-death kidnap choreography? We are obliged to report it, but we need not go along with the terrorist propagandists in milking the most horror out of it.

We know that the primary purpose of the kidnap weapon is to drive the coalition forces out of Iraq and to prevent a free election there.

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.

We are dealing with the most brutal propaganda weapon yet devised. Strong governments counter it by refusing to pay money or policy ransom to the kidnap-killers. Nonpartisan media's response should be to report the events conscious of manipulation and not to overlook the reaction of Iraqi and worldwide Muslim disgust.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren