Saving Lives or Saving Jesse?

Reverend Jesse Jackson evidently believes that he can pull off another personal foreign diplomatic coup and get Thomas Hamill, the American civilian truck driver kidnapped in Iraq, released. He reportedly contacted Hamill's wife after she pleaded in the media for assistance and offered to help free him. She eagerly and understandably accepted his offer. Hamill's abduction has generated much sympathy and press attention. He is not a soldier and a combatant and hostage taking anywhere and anytime is a dirty, brutal and cowardly business.

But Jackson's effort still raises the troubling question of why he thinks he can do what skilled negotiators, even presidents, heads of state and official diplomats can't do?

This is, of course, hardly the first time that Jackson has barged into a volatile and dangerous international crisis to offer his services. This is in keeping with the role that he has carved out for himself with the media. He can step where others dare not tread or have failed miserably and get results.

It has worked just enough to feed the miracle-worker image. Who can forget Jackson returning triumphantly from Syria after securing the release of a captured American pilot in the late 1980s? He was the conquering hero that even Ronald Reagan grudgingly paid homage to with a White House reception. In 1991, with the eyes of the world focused on the tense war of nerves between the President Bush Sr. and Saddam Hussein, the ubiquitous Jackson turned up in Baghdad smiling and shaking hands with Hussein. Jackson simply couldn't pass up the ultimate photo op.

He has succeeded in getting a few high profile captives released precisely because he is not an American or European president, head of state, or official diplomat. He has no ministerial portfolio, no legal standing and no apparent defined political ax to grind. He is an African-American activist that former dictators and tyrants such as Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, Hussein, and Syrian president Hafez Assad saw as a political asset. He gave them a chance to tweak the nose of the U.S.

When they granted him audiences, favors, and turned over American hostages to him, their not so ulterior motive was to make themselves look like international good guys, score a few points on the cheap with international and American public opinion, embarrass the U.S. and the Western nations, and attain political one-upmanship in war or foreign policy brinkmanship. During the U.S.-NATO war in Kosovo, Milosevic for instance instantly recognized Jackson's value.

Photo-ops at the Yugoslav president's palace and Jackson's standard trademark appeal to "give peace a chance" came dangerously close to putting a stamp of legitimacy on a barbaric regime desperate to deflect public wrath from the gruesome stain of the rape, pillage, and murder of thousands of ethnic Albanians from its murderous hands. The Jackson mission also increased the U.S.-NATO's efforts to make him pay. They bombed Yugoslav cities and towns even more piteously after Jackson left the country. They were not about to tolerate the meddling of private citizen Jackson in big power war and foreign policy making.

However, when Jackson pulls off his diplomatic coups he also gets the instant cheers of many Americans, earns the eternal respect and gratitude of the hostage's families, and gains some momentary residual goodwill. But that's precisely the point. Jackson's handful of media headline grabbing diplomatic conquests also enhance his image. They give him the chance to reassert his credentials as a humanitarian, religious leader, and peace advocate. This instantly boosts his stature as media hero, and strengthens his standing as black America's main if not only man.

That's now more important than ever to Jackson. In the past few years his image and top dog standing as the supreme black leader have taken a severe pounding with the scandal over his fathering a child out of wedlock, the allegations of financial profiteering from his civil rights actions, and the ever present charge that he is a crass opportunist who relentlessly chases TV cameras and microphones. Jackson's free-fall from the pinnacle of black America's leadership heap almost certainly fueled Sharpton's mighty effort to grab the top spot as black America's main mouthpiece.

The taking of American hostages in any international hot spot is always big news, and the taking of Hamill in Iraq has been even bigger news. It has instantly whipped up the ire and passions of officials and the public. Even though Jackson admits that he doesn't know where to go or whom to talk with to get Hamill's release, his verbal offer to help has already snatched headlines, and garnered the thanks of Hamill's anxious relatives. If Jackson's sole reason for wanting to help is to save a life and not his damaged reputation than he deserves praise and gratitude. If not, he deserves scorn.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist.


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