Britain was fooled over Ken Bigley

When a bomb goes off, as it did when a car packed with explosives rammed a hotel in a holiday resort in Egypt last week, there is a period of agonised waiting for relatives. For more than three weeks, the kidnappers of Ken Bigley, the British engineer who was murdered in Iraq on Thursday, deliberately imposed that ordeal on his family. Nor did their cruelty end there: they toyed with the family's feelings, producing videos that suggested Mr Bigley was still alive, but always with the threat that the next recording might show his murder - as the final tape did two days ago, apparently after he staged an unsuccessful escape attempt.

The harrowing series of videos demonstrates the kidnappers' ruthlessness, and the distance they have placed between themselves and normal human emotions. Once it became clear that Mr Bigley had fallen into the hands of such people, there did not seem many reasons for hope. His youngest brother, Paul, seems to have understood this from the start, recognising that Mr Bigley's murder was the most likely outcome after he was seized by the Tawhid and Jihad group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But he and the rest of the family were placed in a terrible position, forced to make appeals and plead for help from intermediaries in the knowledge that they were almost certainly following a script devised for them by the kidnappers.

Mr Bigley's capture never seemed straightforward. Two weeks ago, I argued that the kidnappers' purpose was a macabre species of performance, staged to terrify and demoralise not just Mr Bigley's family but also public opinion in this country; as far as the terrorists are concerned, it is not the denouement but the process, a long drawn-out form of torture for the victim and his relatives, which is the point. What Mr Bigley suffered during his ordeal is unimaginable, although reports of his brief escape suggest that his spirit was not crushed. His family has shown great dignity and should be left to grieve in private, but the dilemma posed by his kidnap and murder remains for the rest of us.

As an unidentified Iraqi official observed last week, it is becoming clear that the treatment of hostages varies according to their country of origin. "Now we know the British are killed after they have been exploited to the maximum," he said. According to this thesis, the fate of Mr Bigley's American colleagues, who were murdered much more quickly, was determined by the fact that the American media no longer afford hostage-taking anything like the degree of attention it receives here. This is partly because, since the horrifying murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl two and a half years ago, the American public is realistic about the likely outcome.

In Britain, this is not yet the case and much of what was written about Mr Bigley's captivity suggests that the media have not yet fully grasped the character of Islamic terrorism. Too many expectations were heaped upon well-meaning emissaries, including a mission to Iraq by British Muslims, making the eventual confirmation of his murder even harder to bear. It has dominated public discussion even in a week when the deaths of dozens of people in the bombing of the Taba Hilton marked the opening of an ominous new front in the Islamists' campaign.

More than 30 hostages have been murdered in Iraq, yet few of us know a single fact about Durmus Kumdereli from Turkey or Ivailo Kepov, a Bulgarian citizen who was murdered in July. This is not to criticise Mr Bigley's family, who may have been right to believe that the huge publicity in Britain was, until last week, keeping him alive. But it is to suggest that in such dreadful circumstances the interests of an individual family are different from those of the country as a whole. My guess is that Zarqawi intended to kill Mr Bigley from the start, and the whole chilling charade was devised for an age of mass media. Performance is predicated on the existence of an audience, and that is what editors have provided by paying so much attention to the plight of one British man among thousands of victims of the Iraq war.