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October 12, 2004

Mark Steyn's sacked column

As Steyn fans have already heard, his column about the Kenneth Bigley beheading was dropped by the Telegraph. The column has been posted at Steyn's own website, and it is very much worth reading. Steyn suspects that the Telegraph viewed his column as "a little heartless," but he responded, "Well, this is a war, and misplaced mawkishness will only lead to more deaths."

Wretchard at the Belmont Club writes eloquently about the meaning of this, and I have no intention of trying to match him.

But I do want to say one thing about the distinction Steyn draws with an earlier beheading by the jihadis. Steyn writes:

By contrast with the Fleet Street-Scouser-Whitehall fiasco of the last three weeks, consider Fabrizio Quattrocchi, murdered in Iraq on April 14th. In the moment before his death, he yanked off his hood and cried defiantly, “I will show you how an Italian dies!” He ruined the movie for his killers. As a snuff video and recruitment tool, it was all but useless, so much so that the Arabic TV stations declined to show it.

If the FCO wants to issue advice in this area, that’s the way to go: If you’re kidnapped, accept you’re unlikely to survive, say “I’ll show you how an Englishman dies”, and wreck the video. If they want you to confess you’re a spy, make a little mischief: there are jihadi from Britain, Italy, France, Canada and other western nations all over Iraq – so say yes, you’re an MI6 agent, and so are those Muslims from Tipton and Luton who recently joined the al-Qaeda cells in Samarra and Ramadi. As Churchill recommended in a less timorous Britain: You can always take one with you. If Mr Blair and other government officials were to make that plain, it would be, to use Mr Bigley’s word, “enough”. A war cannot be subordinate to the fate of any individual caught up in it.

Steyn is right. "A war cannot be subordinate to the fate of any individual caught up in it." Private citizens may have their concerns about the safety of their friends and relatives, but national leaders must make difficult decisions for the broader good of the country. Any one of us who had a relative or friend in Mr. Bigley's situation would want the government to do anything it could to get him released. We could be forgiven if we persuaded ourselves that the national interest would not suffer from doing what was necessary to release the captive. But Tony Blair could not be forgiven if he subordinated his responsibility to do what would best protect the country against further attack to a desire to save a particular individual.

About a quarter of a century ago, we all suffered as Jimmy Carter became so consumed with the safety of the American hostages in Iran that he was unable and unwilling to act decisively in the interest of the nation. The rescue operation was too little, too late. I remember commenting that if Carter had handled the situation properly, many or all of the hostages would have been killed. That was not my wish, of course. I was simply bemoaning Carter's failure to do what was necessary to prevent further anti-American acts.

A president who orders troops into war necessarily realizes that some, perhaps many, of them will not come back alive. It is no solution to this that the president must act as if each were his own son or daughter. That is a recipe for surrender. Nor do the troops themselves act with such timidity. So many demonstrate a selflessness and courage in the face of death and a recognition that there is something larger they are fighting for than any individual caught up in the war.