Bartering Human Lives

There wasn't a day I spent in Iraq that I wasn't called into the office. It was perpetual operational mode, sometimes 20 hours a day. My tour as the coordinator of the Hostage Working Group at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad ended on April 1, and as it happens, that's the day we put journalist Jill Carroll on a military flight to Germany, and back home. I'm relieved beyond measure, because I wouldn't have been able to leave this job with a sense of mission accomplishment if she were still a captive. Seeing Jill's tears of happiness when she stepped out of a car into the arms of her best friend was the only reward I needed for my 21 months here. Most days, though, have been far less rewarding. There are at least 13 other Americans and many other foreigners still missing in Iraq. We know of numerous who have been killed, and the fate of countless others is still unknown. Yet there are still more, running around Baghdad, even now, just tragedies waiting to happen.

It has never failed to astonish me just how unrealistic some of the Westerners who work and live here are. Everyone seems to have some reason why it couldn't happen to them. Some think if they speak the language, know the culture, or oppose the "occupation" they can't fall victim to this horror. That did not help Margaret Hassan of CARE in Iraq, who married an Iraqi, converted to Islam, and worked to help impoverished Iraqis for 25 years. She was kidnapped in 2004 and killed by her captors despite a worldwide call for her release. Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni called himself a "convinced pacifist" and never wrote anything positive about the Coalition effort in Iraq. His captors called him "a spy" and executed him. American Tom Fox of the Christian Peacemakers Team thought because he was here to expose abuse of Iraqi detainees by American soldiers, his allegiance with locals would protect him. He was murdered in a horrible way and his body left on the side of the road. Coalition forces rescued his three other fellow hostages before that could happen to them, yet the CPT described their rescue as a "release." They continued to claim that the root cause of their kidnapping was "the illegal occupation of Iraq by multinational forces." I have news for you. The root cause of kidnappings is because there are a lot of truly evil, ruthless people out there. Most of them are looking for money, and they know foreigners may command high prices. All of them cloak their criminality in political slogans. But at the end of the day, they're all bartering human lives in the most reprehensible way possible. I've heard countless stories of hostage takers torturing a victim while they negotiate over the phone with his family for his release. I've seen the evidence firsthand, and in that case the kidnapper was Sunni, and so was his victim. Most of the kidnapping victims are fellow Iraqis and Muslims, far more than the foreigners. We reckoned there are as many as 10-20 kidnappings in Iraq every day. Sometimes the media suggest that these kidnappers are freedom fighters. They are nothing of the sort. They're ruthless thugs who are destroying the lives of hundreds of families, Iraqi and foreign alike. In the case of a lot of the foreigners, many have only themselves to blame. Anyone who doesn't think there's an X on his chest when he comes here is just out of touch with reality—or deeply in denial. If you don't have the wherewithal within your organization to protect yourself, you shouldn't be here. Sadly, that's true of many of the Western journalists here. The vast majority of the high-profile cases I worked on were journalists. Many foreigners think they can just keep a low profile and they'll be all right. All wrong. Take hostage Doug Woods, the Australian private contractor. A few months before he was kidnapped, he gave an interview and stated, "I fly under the radar." Well, the bad guys aren't using radar. He was one of the lucky ones because he was rescued during a military operation 40 days after his kidnapping. There's a maxim about life in a high-risk zone: "When you're hungry, it is foolish to hunt a lion when there are plenty of sheep around." Many bureau chiefs and NGOs send their staffs into the lion's den with no more security than a local driver and/or translator in an unarmored vehicle on a hope and a prayer they won't be kidnapped, or suffer a worse fate. For two years now, no American soldier has been taken hostage—though the insurgency would love to capture one. Why? Because they know how to protect themselves. They have the tactics, techniques and procedures. And the resources. So do some of the journalists and aid workers still here—but many do not. And when these criminals see an easy mark, that is who they will target. I know many of these people are committed to doing their jobs as best they know how, and they have every right to gamble with their own lives. But many of them don't appreciate the risks they're imposing on others, too. The Iraqi staffers, the anguished family members back home, the worried friends and colleagues. The soldiers who have to risk their lives in any rescue attempt. At the Hostage Working Group, we treated all the hostages' cases the same, whatever their views were about the American presence. This has been a huge undertaking, bigger than most people realize. I can't go into details, but the working group regularly calls on the resources of multiple government and military agencies. We do everything we can to rescue these people, even those who sometimes reject everything the Coalition is trying to accomplish here, and don't even thank you for the work you do on their behalf. But that's the way it should be. Baghdad is a war zone and Jill Carroll was aware of the dangers. She took some precautions, but they were not enough in Iraq. Simply acknowledging a threat is not enough to mitigate the threat. In a combat environment, you must go out with more protection than merely belief in your cause. A tremendous effort was made on her behalf, both behind the scenes, and publicly. You can't fault her for the things she said when she was in captivity—you're going to say what they want in order to survive your situation. And in the end, she came home alive. Right now, that's all that matters. Dan O'Shea served as the coordinator of the U.S. State Department's Hostage Working Group in Iraq from the time the organization was established in July 2004 until April 2006.