Losing Our Heads 

Iraqi insurgents are butchers, yet not as bad as us

WASHINGTON--"INHUMAN," screamed the cover of the New York Post in reaction to the latest beheading video to come out of Iraq. "BUTCHERS," added the late edition. But that's too easy. The men who slit American engineer Jack Hensley's throat are human beings. So let's consider them as fellow humans with strategy in mind, and look at how the current rash of teledecapitations began.

Muslim extremists have been sending us a message for more than a decade. That message can be summarized as: leave us alone. Quit funding a right-wing Israeli government that drops American-made bombs on our Palestinian brothers. Stop arming corrupt, despised autocracies across the Muslim world--in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, to name a few--so that we can overthrow them. Let us liberate ourselves. We'll decide whether we prefer secular, modern societies like Turkey, medieval fundamentalists like the Taliban, or something in between. It's our choice, not America's.

Leaders of al-Qaeda and likeminded groups know that a polite letter to the editor, a boycott of American goods, or even a high-concept ad campaign wouldn't convince the United States to pull out of the Middle East or Central Asia. Too much oil is at stake. And no other country or group of countries is powerful enough to make us do so. Terrorism, the time-honored tool of the disenfranchised and powerless, seems the only potential equalizer to those who seek to take us on.

From the standpoint of the jihadis, the retail approach--blowing up as many people as possible--has been a failure. Headlines were impressive but the big bombings' practical effect on policy has been nil. Americans barely noticed when Osama & Co. blasted our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Two hundred twenty-four people died and over 5,000 were wounded, but just twelve were American. And East Africa is far, far away. President Bill Clinton fired off cruise missiles at Sudan and Afghanistan, and the editorial pages of American newspapers remained devoid of calls for reconsidering our involvement in the Arab world. September 11 did spark such a discussion, but it was immediately overwhelmed by a wave of righteous indignation that the Bushies channeled into wars against Afghanistan, Iraq and the American Constitution. The big question--should we be over there at all?--was not seriously asked or considered.

Pakistani militants stumbled upon a quintessential truth of marketing with the 2002 killing of kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl: personal tragedy plays to a bigger audience and moves them more deeply than mass murder. For the vast majority of Americans who neither live in New York nor lost a friend or relative, the horrors of September 11 were all the more abstract for their incomprehensible scale. Four hundred people died last year from secondhand smoke, but that's just a statistic. You know Laci Peterson; you've seen and heard her laugh. Three thousand dead, the commercial center of the nation's largest city vaporized--it's too big, like some terrible disease or flood in China that kills vast numbers. But Pearl was real, individual, knowable--one guy, murdered, videotaped right to his grisly end. Four months after 9/11 and three after the invasion of Afghanistan, his gruesome murder finally forced the American public to pay attention to extremists' message. "Maybe we shouldn't be over there," people started wondering.

Iraqi resistance groups took note. "What they do is behead Americans so they can get on the TV screens," Bush says. He's absolutely right. Cutting off the heads of a wide range of the "average folks" of the war situation--truck drivers, journalists, people who might be working to feed their families or might be war profiteers--gets past network censors the way images of dead Iraqi civilians can't, and penetrates all the way to the horrified minds of viewers.

It's difficult to know what people beheaded by the Iraqi insurgents went through during their final days. It's painful to even try. "You are living with your executioner, who's having pictures taken both before, during and after the beheading. That increases the horror," says Daniel Gerould, author of Guillotine: Its Legend and Lore. Yet, as undeniably disgusting as these killings are, the Iraqis are conveying their message to us far more economically than we're conveying our message to them.

Our response to their "leave us alone," of course, is "no." Beginning with the slaughter of the free-fire "Highway of Death" at the end of the Gulf War, continuing throughout the 1990s with routine bombings of civilians and sanctions that blocked medicine that could have saved thousands and culminating with a 2003 invasion with a death toll well into the tens of thousands, the United States has been far more extravagant with expending Iraqi lives then Iraq's beheaders have been with their targeting of individual Westerners.

Just this week, Knight Ridder newspapers reported, the Iraqi Health Ministry--part of the Allawi puppet regime--announced that 3,487 Iraqis have been killed and 13,720 injured by American forces since April 5. "While most of the dead are believed to be civilians," wrote Nancy Youssef, "the data include an unknown number of police and Iraqi national guardsmen. Many Iraqi deaths, especially of insurgents, are never reported, so the actual number of Iraqis killed in fighting could be significantly higher ... Iraqi officials said the statistics proved that U.S. airstrikes intended for insurgents also were killing large numbers of innocent civilians."

Whatever our intentions, and in part thanks to our tactics, Iraqis are increasingly hostile to the U.S. "I think [we] lost the hearts and minds [of Iraqis] a long time ago," says University of Michigan Shiite Islam specialist Juan Cole. Since July, meanwhile, cutting the heads off of about 20 foreigners has given the Iraqi resistance the results it wants: fewer Americans support the war or believe it's worth the cost. Twenty versus three thousand--it's rough calculus but easy arithmetic.

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