Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Iraq and kidnappings

In a development only surprising for the fact that it took the locals so long to cotton-on, kidnapping of Westerners (to use the term loosely) has lately become a favoured form of muscle-flexing for B-list Iraqi terrorists. These are guys who want to be on TV just as much as any brainwashed al Qaida nutbar, but who would be equally happy foraging among a looted convoy of kitchenware. Oh, and they probably aren't busting to die, as suicide robots, in the forseeable future.

Despite its street-crime actus reus, kidnapping can easily become high-production value terrorism. Harrowing video footage of the hostages is television gold, of course, but this is only one branch of a whole televisual franchise whose format was pioneered at Dawson's Field, Jordan in September 1970.

Playing the nationality card – letting the Chinese go, for example, but holding on to the rest, presumably for being proxy, if not actual Americans – allows what is fundamentally the same footage to be repurposed around the world; so drawing up and out whatever visceral response is required from the couch occupants in front in that country’s TVs. Even if this express delivery of manufactured (but oh-so-real) emotion into a nation’s lounge-rooms doesn’t lead to actual negotiation between that nation and the terrorists – in September 1970, it sure did – some other kind of negotiation, of exchange has clearly gone on between producer and viewer.

Dawson's Field was ultimately extremely good television - but not because of a billion dollars of aircraft being unexpectedly blown up. Rather, it was its playing of us-and-them-ism to the nth degree, like any successful reality TV format does.

The lesson of Dawson's Field is clear – or at least it should be. Any negotiation is complicity. Sorry, hostages – I’m changing channels. I’m not even sure that it is crueller to keep you alive, and on an Xtreme Big Brother, than it would have been to just kill you upfront in the old-fashioned way. Either way, it’s a helluva way to go. And either way, I’m not watching.

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