Thursday, October 21, 2004

The strange case of John Martinkus

Good news stories from Iraq are probably thinner than ever on the ground at the moment. Which makes the twisted polarities of the John Martinkus story all the more intriguing. The freelance/SBS journo’s kidnapping by terrorists, brief detention, and release using only his own negotiation skills should have been a straightforward, cheering piece of Good News.

Why it wasn’t rests in part with Martinkus himself. While I can’t pretend to be able to put myself fully in his shoes, being interviewed at Sydney airport when just off a flight from the Mid-East that he had commenced the day after his release, his reported comments were bound to come across as crass at best, and as terrorist propaganda at worst:

These guys, they're not stupid. They are fighting a war but they are not savages - they're not actually killing people willy-nilly. There was no reason for them to kill me. There was a reason to kill (British hostage Kenneth) Bigley, there was a reason to kill the (two) Americans (kidnapped with Bigley). There was not a reason to kill me.

Err, I can think of plenty of reasons for Islamofascists to kill you, John. (Just to name one: you probably (and certainly I hope you do) support non-discrimination against gays – what are the odds then, that you played the 'I’m So-o-o On Your Side, Guys, That One of My Network’s Most Senior Newsreaders Is A Poofter get out of jail free card'? No? Thought not).

In reality, Martinkus was presumably released through a large measure of luck (as Time magazine journalist Michael Ware correctly sees it), plus a bit of what I would call playing the GenX card (Martinkus is 35, and his captors were presumably around the same age). Playing the GenX card would go like this: no pleading, grovelling tears, etc; no mention of spouses/children (especially if one has them); and the copious use of black humour. Also crucial here is Martinkus’ status as an Australian gentile (AFAIK); my strong feeling is that neither “luck” nor playing the GenX card would have saved his life had he been of British or American nationality (because these countries supply the majority of “front of house” troops in Iraq, while all Australian troops are “back of house”), or had he been Jewish, of any nationality.

Largely, I’m prepared to explain away Martinkus’ callous comments as a unfortunate cocktail; a combination of post-traumatic shock-meets-euphoria and jet-lag. If I were a relative of a murdered hostage though, I doubt I’d so forgiving. And arguably even more put upon by Martinkus are the families of the hundreds of unemployed Iraqi men who have been murdered while queuing for jobs to assist in Iraq’s occupation/reconstruction (take your pick). If Martinkus seriously believes that there is more “reason” to kill a just-wants-to-eat Iraqi ditchdigger than a Western journalist, then I suggest he does Iraq’s unemployed masses a small favour by heading back to Baghdad and picking up a shovel instead of a mic.

Finally, there is the terrorist propaganda value of Martinkus’ release, and especially his subsequent comments. It would be easy to overplay this, and but for one thing I would have not even mentioned it myself. The difference-making “thing” looms so large, in fact, that it happens to be the elephant in the china shop otherwise known as Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. To say the least, the perennially ill-advised Downer’s attempts – while Martinkus was in transit back to Australia – to paint him as Just a Very Naughty Boy show up the government PR machine as something simultaneously Orwellian and yet creakingly inept. By attempting to neutralise Martinkus’ story with counter-propaganda, the government has ended up having to do what no hostage – at least of GenXers captors – should ever attempt. That is to say, pleading for a way out, thinly-veiled as disingenuous humbug:

But a spokesman for Mr Downer said the minister was simply expressing concern over how dangerous it was to go into certain areas of Baghdad.

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