The Italians' Clear Signal to Would-be Abductors

The Italians have unquestionably given would-be abductors the clear signal that there is profit -- financial or otherwise -- in going after non-combatant foreigners.
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I'm so glad that Daniele Mastrogiacomo of Italy's La Repubblica was the only journalist trying to operate in Afghanistan. Otherwise, there is no way the Italian government would have responded to Mastrogiacomo's kidnapping, and the decapitation of his driver, by making a deal to swap out -- or pressure the Afghanis to swap out -- five Taliban prisoners in exchange for Mastrogiacomo's release. If the Italian government suspected that there might be others on the ground trying to do the kind of work that Mastrogiacomo was doing, there's no way they'd have made any deal at all.

Yes, I am human. If I were Mastrogiacomo's wife, or a member of his family, or any one of his friends, I would have been begging the Italians and everybody else to do anything to free him, no matter what. And today, I would want to throw my arms around foreign minister Massimo "we're not the only ones who do this" D'Alema's neck, rather than feeling a strong urge to wring it, as I do now. But it isn't captives' loved ones who negotiate or not with captors. It's governments -- and that's a very good thing. Or it would be a good thing, if governments took seriously their responsibility to see the whole picture, and to protect the whole at-risk population, not just the individuals in question. By agreeing to these or any terms, the Italians have unquestionably given would-be abductors the clear signal that there is profit -- financial or otherwise -- in going after non-combatant foreigners. They have therefore set up an unknown number of other journalists and humanitarians, families and friends for the same dire fate.

I know that this is the standard official U.S. line. It is also, in this case, common sense. What does the Italian government think these guys are going to do next? Open a supermarket? No -- they, and people like them, are going to pick off more journalists, aid workers, human-rights monitors, you name it. They're going to use any surreptitiously-obtained cash to get more weapons and the publicity to get more recruits. (Cash will help there, too.) As in this case, they're going to use the leverage they are granted to get their imprisoned colleague sprung from jail and put back into action, possibly to carry out plans that imprisonment would have foiled.

The U.S. Department of State has blasted the Italians on the grounds that such deals additionally imperil the military. Maybe so, but what really infuriates me is the threat that such deals pose to those who often challenge the military.

I'm steering clear of the word "terrorism" because I want to steer clear of a fruitless fight over who deserves that moniker and who doesn't. But if such acts as the taking of Mastrogiacomo and the butchering of his colleagues don't constitute terrorism, they certainly achieve the chilling effects of terrorism. Not every journalist is going to get kidnapped -- but the more this kind of thing happens, the more every journalist is going to think about, and plan around, the possibility of getting kidnapped. At this point in a place like Afghanistan, the personal-safety questions won't be new, but with each abduction, they'll become more insistent: My family is already worried sick that I'm in this country at all; do I owe it to them to get out? Even if I decide these risks are acceptable to me, what about the local people who work for me, and without whom I can't do a damn thing? I hate the idea of traveling with a firearm or -- provided I've got the budget for it -- paying security people to travel with me, but is it stupid of me to shun all that stuff?And if I do shun it, are there now places that I should consider just suicidal to go?

The chill will be felt far and wide. The number of reporters covering the situation -- especially those covering it with the depth and insight that comes with broad travel and varied, sustained contacts -- will contract. The list of places that are considered insane to venture into will expand. This will diminish the work of upstart freelancers and big-name bureau chiefs alike. The freelancers, being starving, are often the most game to go anywhere, the most willing and able to dig into the stories that the big shots can't get to, and the least hampered by higher-ups reining them in - but they also can't afford the really experienced local fixers, let alone anything like private security (which is a whole other can of worms anyway). With notable, certifiable exceptions, the established, name-brand journalists will either be inclined or flat-out obliged to limit themselves to relatively shallow reporting from relatively secure locations and such forays as riding around with the military. And the world -- especially those parts of the world that would like to keep as close an eye as possible on American activities abroad - will lose all hope of perspective.

The local people will just lose hope. Certainly in Iraq, and I'm willing to bet in other places, there is tremendous and obvious overlap between so-called political crime and plain old crime crime. To enable one is to enable the other. This is above and beyond the more obvious fact that even the most political violence, most directly aimed at occupation forces, results in local civilian casualties and hardship.

Obviously, it is not within the power of the Italian government to eradicate the myriad dangers faced by foreigners in Afghanistan. But, when the relevant occasions arise in war zones everywhere, it is within the power of every government to respond in ways that serve to increase or decrease those dangers. There is no question which of these has just occurred.

In order to survive, the kidnap-and-decapitate guys need money. They need publicity. And they need leverage. The Italian government just provided them with at least two out of three.

Grazie!

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