What makes for a good reality-TV show? Drama. Suspense. But lots of reality shows have that. How about adding a heavy dose of violence — and not just minor violence, but savagery of a kind not seen on any other reality show or even in the most violent video game? A sure hit. And what could fit the bill for this kind of show better than real-life kidnappings, demands, dramatic threats, desperate appeals and, in some episodes, cold-blooded, on-camera murder?
This is the show that has been playing for months in Iraq, where terrorists have kidnapped scores of foreign nationals, releasing some, ransoming a few, shooting or beheading several while continuing to threaten others still in captivity. It has proved to be an extremely effective tactic.
The latest: Micah Garen, an American journalist kidnapped just over a week ago in the southern city of Nasiriyah. He had been threatened with death and was trotted out to deliver a videotaped message Friday. But Garen was freed Sunday, a rare happy ending for an American captive.
Also Friday, freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni of Italy was reported missing in the holy city of Najaf and has not been heard from since.
Terrorists exploit technology
Kidnappings for political ends have a long history, and they figured prominently in the repertoire of terrorists in the early 1970s. They have been brought back now with new directors, new choreography and more explicit violence, exploiting new opportunities provided by global TV news networks and the Internet.
Now operating their own Web sites, terrorists can reach millions of people directly on their computers — creating, in effect, their own "Terrorist News Network." But instead of merely covering the news, the terrorists create it. The Internet enables terrorists to speak directly to their constituents as well as to their adversaries. Terrorists can bypass the traditional media that were, until recently, the gatekeepers that decided what information should be communicated to the world. Thanks to the Internet, there are no longer any gates.
Once a hostage tape is posted on the Internet and available to an audience of hundreds of millions, the networks, newspapers and mainstream Web sites often give edited versions of the photos even more prominence, rationalizing that the pictures are already out there. By watching global news networks such as CNN, BBC or Al-Jazeera, terrorists can get instant reviews of their latest production. The Internet enables them to check out the domestic media in targeted countries. Chat rooms let them learn how constituents and potential supporters view the results.
Dramas in which human life hangs in the balance are always gripping and dangerous for political leaders. If they refuse to make concessions to the kidnappers and the hostages are killed — as happened with Italian Fabrizio Quattrocchi, American Nick Berg and South Korean Kim Sun Il in Iraq — terrorists seek to shift blame to victims' own governments. And if leaders make concessions, terrorists are encouraged to capture and kill more innocents.
Capturing the media, too
Indeed, even in the midst of war, kidnappings have attracted more media attention than combat deaths. Killings were news for a day, but kidnappings were dramas played out over days or weeks.
The kidnappings have potential long-term effects as well. They raise the risks and the costs of doing business in Iraq. New investments in Iraq by foreign companies are being canceled or deferred.
No one knows whether the terrorist version of reality TV will have a short run or a long one. In response to the kidnappings, easy targets are becoming scarcer, and security is increasing. This could enable the new Iraqi authorities, backed by coalition forces, to get a handle on the problem. Or, bored audiences may switch to other channels and the mainstream media could find hostage-taking less newsworthy over time. But so far, that is not happening.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert with the Rand Corp., a non-profit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in USA Today on August 22, 2004.