The Price of a Hostage


I could suggest a 'hint of subtle racism' and 'unconcealed bias' in the Chicago Sun-Times' article titled, "Arabs express rare outrage at kidnapping of French journalists."

But I will not, for the article's assessment is disturbingly true.

Christian Chesnot and George Malbrunot were abducted by militants of the "Islam Army of Iraq" while on their way to Najaf coming from Baghdad last month. Their capture immediately garnered attention, sympathy and outrage even, among ordinary Arabs and Muslims.

Marches and sit-ins were held in various cities around the world, led by members of Arab and Muslim communities. Arab and non-Arab intellectuals lined up to express solidarity with the hostages and the French people via every sort of media available. A Kuwaiti journalist, reported Radio Mont Carlo, offered to swap himself in exchange for their freedom.

The unusually sympathetic reaction is likely because of a widespread perception among Arabs that Paris has a much more balanced foreign policy in the Middle East compared to that of London and especially Washington. Yet such compassion should be the least we can expect in response to a crime that as previously led to the gruesome spectacle of videotaped beheadings of innocent people even as they beg for pity from their unmerciful captors.

But if it's true that morality precedes politics – as some idealists claim – then where was the outrage at the killing of 12 laborers from Nepal, butchered by Iraqi militants just days before the French hostage crisis made headlines?

A video posted by a web site linked to an Iraqi militant group recorded the slaughter of the 12 men of whom we still know little, aside from the fact that they were dirt poor. A masked man in desert camouflage opened the show by slitting the throat of a blindfolded man lying on the ground. MSNBC describes the scene as follows:

The blindfolded man moans and a shrill wheeze is heard, then the masked man displays the head to the camera before resting it on the decapitated body.

Other footage showed a man firing a single shot from an assault rifle at the back of the heads of 11 others. Blood seeps from their bodies into the sand.
The still pictures circulated in the media were of 12 men lined up in near perfect symmetry inside a ditch.

Gazing at the photos, my first response was an uncontrolled shudder. I immediately recalled fleeting images, still ingrained in my head, of the Palestinian victims of Sabra and Shatila, who were butchered with similar methods in 1982. In some instances the Palestinian victims were lined up in similar and awesome symmetry.

But to draw any parallel between the two crimes, or to suggest that one justifies the other, is entirely wrong.

Nepalis swarm the Middle East as a cheap labor force, earning an average of 100 dollars a month in the most privileged of Arab countries. They work under the harsh conditions � there are no benefits, no days off, no health or life insurance and no complaints.
Nepal, a war-torn country tucked away in the Himalayas, also has no geopolitical value, or at least not one that is redeemable in the Middle East. Consequently, no delegations of Muslim leaders poured into Baghdad to free them prior to their executions, nor did the same intellectuals express outrage at their slaughter. Even the Nepali government took little action, behaving as though the victims belonged to some other nation, in a different time and place.

The captors of course – despite their apparent irrationality � fully understand the political worth of these hostages, and therefore placed little value on their lives. It is why they demanded nothing in exchange for their freedom. They were well aware of the fact that the Nepali hostages were not the top priority of a powerful government – like say, France – nor would their fate compel the attention of an influential media. There would be no advocate willing to bargain for their freedom.

They were brutally killed simply as a scare tactic, a means to deliver a warning: "You better take us seriously, even if we free a hostage every now and them."

While the bloodbath unleashed in Iraq is the direct outcome of a deadly and unjustified aggression lead by the United States government for its own reasons, it should not serve as an apology for the killing of innocent civilians in exchange for political concession.

If a lesson can be learned from this madness, it is that this misguided war on Iraq has in fact led - as many of us rightfully warned - to a slaughterhouse, and Iraqis are just one of its many casualties.

But there is another less comfortable truth that we must acknowledge equally. We live in a racist world where the value of human beings is based on the geopolitical worth of their country. It is a racism motivated by realpolitik more than skin color.

A Nepali man who works as a guard tried to explain to me why an angry crowd burned down Kathmandu's only mosque after the murder of the 12 men in Iraq. "They are angry, sir, because, these people were very poor. There families need food," he said, trying to express himself in the little English he knew.

Trying to redeem, or perhaps disguise, the world's apathy, I said, "I am so sorry for what has happened to your people. I assure you that there are so many people out there who care."

Once again, I shuddered � this time for telling a lie.

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