Saturday, January 28, 2006

Of hostages, journalists and hope


(AP Photo/Al Jazeera)

Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) members, James Loney, Harmeet Singh Sooden, Tom Fox, and Norman Kember, kidnapped in Iraq on November 26 have been shown alive on Al Jazeera. The video made a demand to U.S. and Iraqi authorities to "release all Iraqi prisoners in return of freeing the hostages, otherwise their fate will be death."

At least they apparently are still alive. This is good and hopeful news -- the long silence had seemed to presage a bad end.

CPT Canada issued a press release:

This news is an answer to our prayers. We continue to hope and pray for their release.

... James, Harmeet, Norman and Tom are peace workers who have not collaborated with the occupation of Iraq and who have worked for justice for all Iraqis, especially those detained. We continue to believe that what has happened to our teammates is the result of the actions of the U.S. and U.K. governments in their illegal attack on Iraq and the continuing occupation and oppression of its people. We continue to call for justice and human rights for all who are detained in Iraq. The innocent should not suffer in the place of those who have done wrong.

This news comes the same day as new reports that the ACLU has unearthed documents showing the U.S. military took its own hostages, the wives of men they were hoping to seize as "insurgents." There seems to have been just the sort of cowboy mentality at work that we might fear in a guerilla war:

A U.S. lieutenant colonel e-mailed, "What are you guys doing to try to get the husband -- have you tacked a note on the door and challenged him to come get his wife? ... or something more sophisticated, I suspect, from the 'not necessarily the cool guys, but the guys with the cool stuff?'"

A later e-mail stated, "These ladies fought back extremely hard during the original detention. They have shown indications of deceipt (sic) and misinformation."

I guess we should be glad that "our" guys didn't broadcast videos of their captives after "interrogations."

The recently kidnapped Westerners (that we hear about), the CPT four and freelance journalist Jill Carroll, have been people who made a point relating to Iraqis on relatively equal terms, including in Carroll's case learning Arabic. They are quintessential "good people." They have been the focus of an extraordinary outpouring of support: many Muslim and Arab leaders in Iraq, Europe and the U.S. (even current bugaboo Hamas!) have begged for their release. Some thoughts:
  • Because these individuals lived closely with Iraqis, they were vulnerable to kidnapping, just like Iraqis. Journalists Brian Conley and Isam Rashid claim that "there have been two major types of kidnapping. The most common is for ransom. The second is the abduction of foreigners primarily for political reasons and to obstruct the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq." I have not even been able to find an estimate of how many Iraqis have disappeared in various abductions, but the number is certainly in the high thousands. Four hundred foreigners have been kidnapped of whom the fate of 40 is unknown.
  • More and more, people like the CPT 4 and the extremely audacious Carroll are the only foreigners in Iraq who are interacting with Iraqis outside of barricades.
  • Western journalists are leaving. Reporter Alissa J. Rubin writes in the LA Times that now there are "fewer than 75 of us, down from more than a thousand after the war ." She describes her fraught decision not to risk her own life or those of her Iraqi helpers in search of a story. She knows that the necessary decision marks a major change in her sense of her own journalistic professional creed.
  • Paul McLeary is writing a series of reports from Iraq for the Columbia Journalism Review about the work of journalists, so far mostly in Baghdad. "For reporters in Baghdad, death or abduction are very real possibilities every time they leave their protected areas.... the certainty of violence is woven into the daily life of Baghdad. And for anyone who criticizes the so-called 'hotel journalism' that they claim is practiced by the dwindling Baghdad news corps, I would invite them to trade in their morning Egg McMuffin and leisurely 30-minute drive to work for just one foray into the streets of Baghdad to get a story with one of these reporters."
  • Given all this necessary contraction of English-speaking journalistic insight into Iraq, it is brave and encouraging that Chris Allbritton of Back to Iraq has chosen to return to reporting from within the country.
So where's the hope?

The hope comes, as always, from popular resistance to continuance of violence by the powers that be. Since January 15, a group of folks coming out of the Christian Peacemaker Team orbit have been conducting Shine the Light pilgrimages to key Washington, DC institutions that support the war. They refuse, quietly, but insistently, to let their light be extinguished. For sometimes amusing, sometimes edifying accounts of reactions from workers, army recruiters, and various authorities, see Peace Talk.


The hooded prisoner was an unexpected sight in suburban Montgomery County.

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