Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Only the Lonely

The only way to top Roger Simon's title, Lonely are the Brave, was by accident. His post was linked to a poll showing him among the few novelists planning to vote for George W. Bush. Rambling through his site I accidentally stumbled on a cancelled Mark Steyn column which argued that all future hostages like Kenneth Bigley should be written off to reduce the incentive to take more hostages.

Today, for the first time in all my years with the Telegraph Group, I had a column pulled. The editor expressed concerns about certain passages and we were unable to reach agreement, so on this Tuesday something else will be in my space.

I’d written about Kenneth Bigley, seized with two American colleagues but unlike them not beheaded immediately. Instead, sensing that they could exploit potential differences within "the coalition of the willing", for three weeks the Islamists played a cat-and-mouse game with Mr Bigley’s life, in which Fleet Street, the British public, governments in London and Dublin and Islamic lobby groups in the United Kingdom were far too willing to participate. As I always say, in this war the point is not whether you’re sad about the dead people, but what you’re prepared to do about it. What "Britain" – from Ken Bigley’s brother to the Foreign Secretary – did was make it more likely that other infidels will meet his fate.

The 62-year old British engineer's body was dumped in Baghdad on October 8th, after he was beheaded on video. Steyn's almost heartless, mechanical determination to carry on contrasted starkly with the expectations of nearly everyone else. Bigley himself never expected to be be kidnapped. He had led the kind of knockabout life that makes one believe it possible to get along with all sorts.

He spent most of his life on the move. He married Margaret Hose, at 21, and they bought £10 tickets to Australia in 1963. He worked in Victoria before moving to New Zealand and then back to Liverpool where he ran two supermarkets. ...  He soldiered on and spent the next few years running a bar on the Costa del Sol and working in the Middle East. It was in Dubai that he met second wife Sombat, 35.

Bigley avoided guarded compounds and lived in an ordinary residential neighborhood. When warned by his friends that he might be kidnapped, Bigley responded, not without reason, that he was too old for kidnappers to bother with. To the end Bigley seemed to ask, 'Why me?' In the video of his execution, the British hostage asks

"Here I am again, Mr Blair... very, very close to the end of my life. "You don't appear to have done anything to help me," the 62-year-old engineer continued. "I'm not a difficult person. I am a simple man who just wants to live a simple life with his family." At the end of Mr Bigley's plea, he is beheaded by his masked captors.

To the end many Europeans were convinced that reason would prevail; that Bigley would be released. It seemed impossible for such an absurd execution to go forward. A column in the Observer noted that the British government had entered into negotiations with the kidnappers; that the Irish government had offered to make Bigley an Irishman to confer the protection of a neutral passport; Muhammer Khadaffy, Yasser Arafat, prominent British Muslims and Cat Stevens -- yes Cat Stevens -- had appealed for his life. With supplicants like this, how could Bigley not be released? The Observer's answer was because America refused to join in the chorus.

Foreign workers are not escaping Iraq. The numbers of them applying for jobs is actually increasing. Dick Cheney's Halliburton says it has 30,000 foreigners working there and another 100,000 applicants waiting to go. Unemployment at home and big money in Iraq attract not only Americans, but Nepalese, Turks, Armenians and Pakistanis. Some have died in attacks on foreign installations, others - including Muslims from Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan - have been murdered in captivity. As a tactic, kidnappings are less effective than suicide bombings or roadside attacks. But that so many Muslims have been murdered must mean that even an Irish passport would have been no shield for anyone working under a US contract in Iraq. It is about occupation, not nationality.

"America could have saved Bigley", was the article's conclusion. It's stubbornness alone had nullified the efforts of men of goodwill; and that stubbornness deserved no voice, even when articulated by so polished a writer as Mark Steyn. But even the Guardian began to have its doubts about the efficacy of sweet reason. Andrew Anthony focused upon the efforts of Muslim convert Cat Stevens, AKA Yussuf Islam, to win Bigley's release.

Among the many voices of British Muslims who pleaded on behalf of Bigley was Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. This is what he wrote in an open letter to the Tawhid and Jihad group thought to be holding the civil engineer: "As a member of the Muslim Council I request you, in the name of Allah, the Rahman (the all-merciful), to release British citizen Ken Bigley for the good name of our religion and according to the sayings of Allah in the glorious Qur'an." He also went on to ask that the kidnappers "show the world the justice and mercy which Islam teaches us".

... Perhaps Yusuf Islam does not mean much to Zarqawi. Very possibly he's never heard any of his records, even the recent religious ones on which he sings without godless instruments. But Islam, who has been a key figure in gaining government support for Islamic schools, does have a respected position among Muslims in Britain, and if Tawhid and Jihad had really wanted to gain a propaganda coup, it might have responded to Islam with a demonstration of leniency rather than ritualised murder. In reality, gaining the respect of fellow Muslims was always going to be a much weaker motivating factor for Bigley's kidnappers than their own hatred of the West. This, I think, is a sad truth of which Islam was well apprised before writing his letter.

And that hatred, Anthony found himself forced to confess, was present even in Cat Stevens himself.

Nevertheless in writing it (the Bigley petition), he positioned himself, and the British Muslims for whom he spoke, on the side of universal humanity. Alas, that is a position that in the past he has not always occupied unambiguously. When Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on Salman Rushdie, Islam was reported to have made a speech in favor of the decree. He denied it, claiming that he had only protested at the publication of the Satanic Verses.

Yet eight years later, he told me that he thought Rushdie, who was still under round-the-clock protection, should be "extradited" to Iran to stand trial - where presumably his sentence would have been a good deal stiffer than a fine. He also expressed views on adultery and the punishment thereof, that might best be described as mediaeval, if that didn't defame a whole epoch.

That unreasoning hatred was present in at least some Muslims in Britain was underscored by the theft of the Bigley condolence book from its display stand in the Birmingham Central Mosque. According to the BBC:

A book of condolence opened in tribute to the murdered Iraq hostage Kenneth Bigley has been stolen. Thieves also took a framed photograph of him, candles and some sympathy cards from Birmingham Central Mosque. ... Muslim leaders from across Birmingham signed the book as a gesture of support to his family in Liverpool. But on Sunday morning a caretaker discovered the thefts and that a picture had been turned upside down.

Naturally, nobody knew who did it.

Dr Mohammed Naseem, chairman of Birmingham Central Mosque, said: "They are sick people. We don't know who's done it and I can't put a motive on it.

Dr. Naseem's observation is the sole ray of light in this whole muddled affair. He and Steyn have put their finger on the simple error that everyone from Bigley to those campaigning for his release have made. Not only is it impossible to put a rational construction on these events, it is a waste of time to try. Bigley thought he was too old; the schoolchildren in Beslan thought they were too young; the French journalists thought they were too French to be the victims of terrorism. And they were wrong. Wrong because they assumed that enemy intent rather than capability was the limiting factor to their mayhem. It is an odd statistical fact that fewer Americans have died from terrorist attacks in Iraq than Iraqi children. The one thousand US combat deaths in the months since OIF is only slightly larger than the number of Canadians killed in the 1942 Dieppe Raid over the course of 9 hours; and not because the terrorists are eager to "show the world the justice and mercy which Islam teaches us" but because they cannot kill more.

Radical Islam is self-evidently at war with the West because their efforts are limited only by their capability. And the West is just as clearly not yet at war with radical Islam because its actions are still limited by its intent. Zarqawi sawed off Bigley's head simply because he could; America spares Fallujah from choice. That inability to think of ourselves as being truly at war underlay the rejection of Mark Steyn's column. He had only stated the obvious.

... consider Fabrizio Quattrocchi, murdered in Iraq on April 14th. In the moment before his death, he yanked off his hood and cried defiantly, "I will show you how an Italian dies!" He ruined the movie for his killers. As a snuff video and recruitment tool, it was all but useless, so much so that the Arabic TV stations declined to show it. If the Foreign and Colonial Office wants to issue advice in this area, that’s the way to go: If you’re kidnapped, accept you’re unlikely to survive, say "I'll show you how an Englishman dies", and wreck the video. If they want you to confess you're a spy, make a little mischief: there are jihadi from Britain, Italy, France, Canada and other western nations all over Iraq – so say yes, you're an MI6 agent, and so are those Muslims from Tipton and Luton who recently joined the al-Qaeda cells in Samarra and Ramadi. As Churchill recommended in a less timorous Britain: You can always take one with you. If Mr Blair and other government officials were to make that plain, it would be, to use Mr Bigley's word, "enough". A war cannot be subordinate to the fate of any individual caught up in it.

And, if you don't want to wind up in that situation, you need to pack heat and be prepared to resist at the point of abduction. I didn't give much thought to decapitation when I was mooching round the Sunni Triangle last year, but my one rule was that I was determined not to get into a car with any of the locals and I was willing to shoot anyone who tried to force me. If you're not, you shouldn't be there.

 A lonely voice. But then, Lonely are the Brave and lonelier are the dead.