Saturday, January 08, 2005

Hostage Taking by America in Iraq

Today, I was reading Martin Gilbert’s A History of the Twentieth Century: Volume One: 1900 – 1933. It is organized year by year, and so far I have read only through 1905. Yet already I have come across several instances where colonial powers used the tactic of taking hostages from the civilian families of rebellious native populations in an effort to pacify them. During the Boer wars the English held rebel Boers’ families hostage in concentration camps where the conditions were so deplorable that the British people were outraged by reports coming from South Africa. Even though the British public strongly supported the war, this practice was widely denounced. In the Congo, while it was a crown property of the King of Belgium, it was a common practice to hold family members of a man hostage until he returned from the bush with his daily quota of rubber. This practice, among other attrocities, inspired the Belgians to buy the Congo from the King in order to end the abuses. In German South West Africa the German army held civilian populations as hostages to try to quell the rebellion of the Herero and Witboi tribes. There was outrage in all European capitals upon learning of this news.

Again and again the use of civilian hostages to contol conquered populations is seen in that age of colonialism. I expect I will find more examples of this practice as I continue through the years, and would find yet more if I examined colonial history more closely. Yet time and again when colonial armies or administrations resorted to this tactic the home populations reacted with outrage when the news arrived in ‘civilized’ lands. People took up petitions and the members of parlements and legislatures demanded the government cease the practice. Foreign embassies rattle sabers and sternly urged reform. Even in this barbarous age a century ago, when it was acceptable and normal to militarily dominate other people for profit and trade, people felt outrage against a practice which turned their fellow humans into helpless hostages, even in midst of a murderous rebellion.

One might think that such barbaric times and practices were far behind us, but of course, they are not. The same tactic is being used by American forces today in Iraq to pacify that colonial rebellion. Americans forces regularly incarcerate the family members of suspected insurgents without charges to bring pressure to bear on the rebels. These practices have been reported in the press and documented in the legislative record, yet there is no outcry by the American public, no legislative demands for an end to the practice. Few seem to care, certainly not enough to do anything to stop it.

No, things have not changed that much in the business of empire over the last century, but something has changed in us. Somehow we have become more innured to cruelty and injustice. Or perhaps we just no longer see our opponents as humans worthy of basic dignity and rights. Whatever the cause, it is chilling to reflect that while we have progressed a century on so many fronts, in war and its ethics, we have regressed even from that distant and brutal time of 1905.

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