You cannot buy a newspaper here or turn on a television set without finding the haunting pictures of hostage Kenneth Bigley staring at you day after day.
Everyone by now has heard of Mr. Bigley's tearful pleas for his
life, and the British public has been spellbound by the fate of the
engineer from Liverpool, who was abducted at gunpoint in Baghdad on
Sept. 16. Two fellow hostages, Americans, were abducted on the same
day and have been beheaded by their captors, their gruesome murders
broadcast over the Internet.
This combination of total barbarism and modern technology has produced a quantum leap for terrorists. They can keep entire countries riveted by acts of terror inflicted on one individual as never before.
Though the subject of last week's conference of European and American policy-makers at Wilton Park in the gently rolling countryside of West Sussex was "The Future of Transatlantic Cooperation," the war on terrorism was the underlying context for many of the discussions.
Does NATO have a future in out of area missions? Will the European Union's plans for an independent military force be a threat to the transatlantic relationship? Should the EU have a planning cell within NATO or not? Will the American space program collide with Europe's evolving space policy? Will China be able to buy arms from the Europeans over the objections of the U.S. government? All of these are relevant and important questions, to be sure.
But with the backdrop of the global war on terror, it does indeed feel - as one participant noted after the session "The Global War on Terror: Transatlantic Challenges and Transatlantic Cooperation" - as though we are rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. The existential question is whether we are engaged in a clash of civilizations, as historian Samuel Huntington famously has described it, or in a war against a particularly vicious and potent form of terrorism.
What emerged from the Wilton Park discussions is that while terrorists on one level operate in a highly globalized environment in cyberspace, we do have the power to pre-empt that capacity. We can fight a high-tech war against them, using all the means of modern technology, from satellites to track cell phones to cyberspace policing to shut down Web sites. If we in the West are not to hang separately, if we are in a war, surely we should cooperate. The question is how far are we prepared - if at all - to impinge on the civil liberties that make our civilization what it is in order to save it.
What is clear, though, is that those of us in the media ought to have a debate among ourselves about how far we are willing to help the terrorists by graphically broadcasting their horrendous acts into the living rooms of the Western world. The essence of terrorism is the effect it has on the mind - i.e. terror, the fear of future acts. Whatever the ultimate political goals of these depraved murderers, scaring us out of out wits and dividing us amongst ourselves is an essential tactic for them.
An editorial in the Sunday Telegraph made this point well. "If [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi's aim has been to show that the West is weak and decadent, then there has been much to cheer him in recent days. In their coverage of Mr. Bigley's appalling case, the British media - television, tabloids and quality newspapers alike - have conspired unwittingly in the terrorists' objectives, which have been to control the agenda, nurture the impression of Western impotence, and encourage the misapprehension that Mr. Bigley's suffering is somehow the consequence of decisions taken by President Bush and, more specifically, Tony Blair."
If we in the media were less willing to play the terrorists' game, we could make an important contribution to the war against them. Pictures, we all know though writers are loath to concede it, are worth a thousands words, and we could for instance institute a voluntary ban on pictures of captors and hostages. That would also have the effect of not exposing the hostages to further humiliation in their distress, showing some respect for human dignity and for the suffering of their families. Nor does reporting on a hostage situation need to involve the most graphic of images or above the fold frontpage treatment.
If we are really serious about being at war, the media needs to do some soul-searching about our role in that war.
Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
First appeared in The Washington Times