The hierarchy of horror

It has taken the plight of one British man to bring home the war on terror
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The Independent Online

It has been a week of agonised waiting, punctuated by threats, pleas and the broadcast of harrowing videos. It is hard to imagine a more distressing sight on British television than that of Lil Bigley, the 86-year-old mother of the kidnapped engineer, pleading for her son's life on Thursday evening's news bulletins. His anguished face had already dominated that day's newspapers, lifted from a grainy video in which he begged the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to intervene and save him.

Even worse images have been broadcast in the Middle East, for those with the stomach to view them, apparently showing the cold-blooded beheading of Ken Bigley's two American colleagues, Eugene Armstrong and Jack Hensley. Cheap DVDs of these terrible events have been exchanging hands in cafes in Baghdad, confirming hostage murders as a kind of pornography of death, traded among Iraqis who may not be insurgents themselves but who derive a dreadful exhilaration from viewing the latest atrocities.

Whether Bigley knew of his friends' unspeakable fate when he delivered his message to the Prime Minister, some of which appeared to have been dictated by his kidnappers, is one of many awful speculations prompted by the tape. His family responded with their own recorded messages as two separate extremist groups claimed on the internet that they had murdered two Italian aid workers, Simona Torretta and Simona Pari, who were kidnapped in Baghdad almost three weeks ago.

The strain of waiting on all three sets of relatives could hardly have been greater, and Lil Bigley was rushed to hospital in Liverpool later on Thursday (and again yesterday). The BBC reported that the family had asked for her message to be broadcast in full, even though she had spoken with great difficulty - an understandable request, even if watching it felt like an intrusion into private grief. But that is not the only reason for unease about the way in which the British media responded to Ken Bigley's awful plight.

It is understandable that his family felt compelled to take matters into their own hands, especially after phone calls from the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who offered sympathy but reiterated that the Government does not negotiate with terrorists. This is demonstrably untrue, as the precedent of Northern Ireland proves, but in the early part of the week the fate of the 62-year-old engineer seemed to lie in the hands not of Blair and Straw but of the interim Iraqi administration.

A senior Iraqi minister indicated that his government was willing to release Rihab Rashid Taha, one of two women scientists who have been held for more than a year without being charged, despite achieving some notoriety for their alleged role in Saddam's WMD programme. Then the Iraqis changed their minds - or, as seems more likely, recognised their impotence to influence the Americans, who actually hold both women in custody.

For members of the Bigley family, these official-sounding announcements were absolutely crucial. They reacted to them with hope, anger and fresh appeals, including one on Friday asking the Irish government to intervene, based on the fact that Mr Bigley's mother was born in Dublin. Yet as the week dragged on, another possibility began to emerge: that the real purpose of the kidnap was not, as the hostage-takers claimed, to secure the release of all Iraqi women detainees.

That demand was perplexing from the start if the Americans, as they have insisted all along, are telling the truth and have no female prisoners apart from the two scientists. It was only slightly more credible than the demand of the hostage-takers who seized two French journalists, given that the men's kidnappers must have known that the Chirac government was unlikely to abandon its ban on the wearing of hijab in French schools in response to threats. One theory is that the two journalists were taken by mistake and their captors were reluctant to infuriate the French government, which opposed the war, by killing two of its citizens.

The group that seized Bigley and the two Americans seems to have acted with a similar degree of calculation. Armstrong and Hensley were murdered very quickly, presumably on the assumption that the hardline Bush administration is impervious to pressure. Bigley's captivity, by contrast, has been agonisingly and very publicly drawn out. And it may be that this was the hostage-takers' intention from the start, to make us all horrified witnesses to his protracted suffering. The whole thing may be a deliberate performance, giving new meaning to the phrase "theatre of war".

The identity of the kidnappers, who claim to belong to Tawhid and Jihad, an Islamist group led by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and believed to have links to al-Qa'ida, makes this seem more likely. In the wake of 9/11, Professor Mary Kaldor of the London School of Economics was one of the first commentators to identify the Islamists' tactics as "spectacle wars", in which the object is to create widespread fear and horror as well as killing innocent civilians. Spectacular events such as the collapse of the World Trade Center cannot be pulled off every year, so the terrorists have organised a series of horrific bombings with many civilian casualties and, more recently, kidnappings of "soft" targets, such as engineers and aid workers, in Iraq.

As we have seen over the last week, the dilemma those kidnappings create for families, the Government and news organisations is huge, and does not present easy solutions. If British TV networks had refused to broadcast Lil Bigley's plea to her son's kidnappers, they could have been accused of aiding the Government by suppressing a potentially damaging development in the story. But by giving so much prominence to the plight of one man, they have drawn us into an intimate involvement in the tragedy - and confirmed the continuing existence of a hierarchy of victims, in which one kidnapped European is apparently more important than a dozen from a developing country.

None of this is the family's fault, and anyone in their ghastly situation would have done the same. But the effect of the wall-to-wall coverage in the press and on TV was instant: the Prime Minister appeared impotent, if not actually heartless, adding renewed force to questions about his judgement in taking the country to war in the first place. At the same time, it is becoming clear that al-Qa'ida and the groups loosely associated with it are much cleverer strategists than President Bush's simplistic rhetoric after 9/11 envisaged. This is not an argument for self-censorship, but it is to raise the possibility that editors unintentionally allowed media-savvy terrorists to determine the news agenda last week.

Finally, there is an even larger issue. The vital task of identifying and arresting leading terrorists around the world has been undermined by the conflict in Iraq, where Islamists and other insurgents are running amok and the coalition is losing control. Ken Bigley and other innocent people from many other countries, including Iraq, are undergoing unimaginable ordeals as terrorists succeed in turning the rest of us into frustrated observers of savagery. In such grim circumstances, only the most deluded politician, or President Bush, could pretend that we are winning the war on terror.