Hostage Tactics

Two French journalists are currently held in Iraq. The hostage-takers threaten to kill them if the French don’t repeal a ban forbidding young Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public schools. The French government has refused to repeal the law, which it says is essential to preserve the secular character of French public education. Wearing large Christian crucifixes, Jewish skullcaps, and Sikh turbans is also forbidden.

The tactic of seizing hostages and threatening to kill them unless demands are met is widely decried and rejected. President Chirac refused to alter the ban which took effect September 2nd, but he dispatched a team to Iraq to negotiate, and he rallied religious and political voices to speak against the terrorism of threatening the journalists. Recent word is that his diplomacy is working and that the journalists will be released. There’s also a suggestion that the hostage-takers really wanted money and will be bought off. This is the usual Hollywood hostage movie scenario. In the movies, terrorists and hostage-takers mouth a political or religious line, but they are actually in it for money. Hollywood knows its own god.

Whatever the motivation, hostage-taking is brutal. It is elementary sacrifice, a willingness to kill for a cause. It’s no different from aggressive war, just punier and less nationalistically rationalized. We bombed and invaded and took Iraq hostage to the war on terror. We were willing to sacrifice Iraqis and Americans and coalition members for our ends. We called our ends Iraqi freedom, democracy, stability, and the war on terror. Others named our ends oil profits and control, Middle East dominance and politics. The means, unlike the ends, was not unclear; it was war, in which the entire country was hostage to our occupying force.

In being willing to risk and sacrifice humans, war and hostage-taking are the same. Hostage-taking is limited, or small-scale war. If the hostage-takers of the French journalists want money, most would contemn them more than if they want religious freedom for young Muslim women in French public schools, because religious ends often sanitize the violent means. The US asks for a pass for killing Iraqi children and innocents because we wash our violence-as our President solemnly intones-in the blood of ‘God’s gift of freedom to all human kind.’

When Moqtada Al-Sadr held the holy shrine in Najaf by force, people denounced him as a criminal and a thug, seeking to wrest his religious cloak from him. We do the same to Osama binLaden. We demonize him as a fanatical terrorist and say he isn’t true to peaceful Islam, as though we were true to peaceful Christianity. Only Christian violence is righteously acceptable to our leaders.

Hostage tactics are simple sacrifice. Our end is worth someone’s blood. When ancient Aztecs pulled bloody beating hearts from living enemies and offered them to the god of the sun, when Christian Crusaders brandished infidel heads on poles, they gave not hostages but enemy losers as sacrificial victims to their victor gods. The hostage scene has the sense of sacrifice, of willingness to slay, but it offers reprieve.

The hostage tactic allows a possibility of escape, of preventing the moment of sacrifice. You cow and terrorize and threaten, you shock and awe, and then say, give us what we want, the innocent can live, it’s up to you, and your fault if they die. We’re not murderers but instruments of your choice. Francis Bacon wrote “He that hath wife and children, hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” He meant that if you care about someone you’re vulnerable and compromised. The practice of not negotiating with hostage-takers is meant to say we won’t be vulnerable or compromised, that hostage-taking won’t work.

The secret’s out, however, and not just because we negotiated arms for hostages in Iran. Hostage-taking is religion and politics and high-stakes mortal poker. And we are all hostages.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at:



DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: