The release of journalist Jill Carroll has understandably sent a wave of relief through all concerned observers of Iraq. Though her return to safety is a cause for celebration, some of the circumstances surrounding her release should give US policymakers pause to contemplate. The statements that she made on tape just prior to and just after her release about the “lies” of the US government and the “good treatment” afforded her by her captors were, according to Ms. Carroll herself, coerced, and should by no means be held against her. Such statements give some aid to the propaganda efforts of the insurgency, but it would be unreasoningly cruel to expect Carroll to lay down her life rather than make them.
Her captors reportedly told Carroll that they had infiltrated the Green Zone and would be watching her closely after her release. If she “cooperated” with the US embassy she would be killed. This would explain why even after her release, when she was already in the office of the “moderate” Sunni political party to whose custody she had been given, she continued to make recorded statements about being “well treated.” Her colleague at the Christian Science Monitor ultimately had to persuade her to come into the Green Zone, the place where (had she been thinking reasonably) she would have realized she would be safest. After witnessing the murder of her interpreter and having been in the life-and-death power of her captors for almost 3 months Carroll cannot be blamed for having taken their threats at face value.
Indeed, the deliberate nature of her captors’ threats and the specificity of the comments they elicited from Carroll were transparent attempts to mitigate the damage from what was ultimately a political victory for the Coalition. What is difficult to explain, however, is the tacit assistance Carroll’s captors received toward their propaganda efforts from the “moderate” political party that managed the actual exchange. Why, immediately upon arrival to “safety” was Carroll placed in front of a camera and interviewed about the treatment she had received from her captors? Though Carroll may clarify what her state of mind was after she has recovered from her ordeal, it seems likely that she was still in the very impressionable state of terror induced by her captors’ threats, and nothing had yet been done to reassure her that she was, in fact, safe. Why would her “liberators” record an interview with her before she had been securely passed into the hands of the US embassy (or at least the Iraqi security forces)? The intent may be murky (to a degree), but the effect is quite clear. The fact that Carroll repeated her statements about being “well treated” once she was already “safe” provided corroboration for the video recorded by her captors prior to her release.
Reading about these circumstances brought to mind the novel Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. In that book set in post-apartheid South Africa, the white protagonist, David Lurie, and his daughter are assaulted by a group of black men. Lurie is later shocked to discover one of the assailants at a party being hosted by his employee, a black farmer named Petrus. It turns out that the men are kin by marriage. Though shocked and angry, Lurie does not believe that a conspiracy has transpired. Rather, he deduces that he and his daughter have fallen victim to something far more “anthropological.”
The hasty interview by Jill Carroll’s “moderate” Sunni liberators may well be an example of the sort of “anthropological” occurrence Coetzee describes, and it is only one instance of many in which such “anthropological” forces have worked and are working to subvert the Coalition mission in Iraq. Sunnis who have entered the political process are almost certain to retain cultural and social ties to kin and associates fighting as part of the insurgency. Attempts to end sectarian or ethnic violence will be sabotaged by tribal allegiances, persistent blood feuds, or patterns of religious authority.
In a recent OpEd piece Thomas Friedman coined a new epithet for the Iraqi insurgency: “Islamonihilists (a term which I will confess brought The Big Lebowski immediately to my adolescent mind).” The US could not have anticipated, says Friedman, the emergence of such a foe- one that is committed only to destruction without any positive plan for what to build amid the ruins. This portrait is clearly wrong. Any serious student of Iraqi history, society, and culture should have been able to anticipate the insurgency currently faced by the emergent Iraqi government and the Coalition. There is no denying that the insurgency is tragically nihilistic in its effect, but this is because of the disparity of its constituents’ goals and the asymmetry between the insurgency’s power and that of its opponents. The insurgents do not “believe in nothing,” they believe in a whole bevy of goals, ideas, and motives. Some of these are reducible to simple self-interest as understood in a particular social and cultural context. Some of these are fantastic dreams whose impracticality is matched only by their potential destructiveness. Some of these are crypto-fascist ideologies that are truly repugnant. If the insurgents were truly “nihilists” their defeat would be a much less complicated affair. In fact, as the circumstances surrounding Jill Carroll’s release demonstrate, the insurgency draws fuel from a whole complex of historical, ideological, and “anthropological” forces that make its defeat by the US extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.