The Laboratorium
April 2002

HostagesAndPower


There are a million reasons to be frustrated by the convulsions of violence racking Israel and Palestine; for me, the futility of Israel's saber-rattling over the person of Yasser Arafat is high among them. With every riot and suicide bomb, Israel's response has been to lob a warning shot at Arafat, to send the tanks in closer to ring a little closer around his Ramallah compound.

The pure futility of these gestures is hard to miss: no one inside the compound is doing more than making cell phone calls by candlelight and looking out at the tanks. After the last year and a half of bombings and unrest, the demonstrations and confrontations, it's hard to take seriously anyone who suggests that Arafat could just turn off the violence at the flick of a switch. These things have gone too far: the anger is out of control. It's not his show to run, probably not anyone's at all. So why threaten Arafat? Why pressure a man who can't stop the violence to stop the violence?

To be clear, there's nothing especially unfair about the situation. Arafat's earned himself a violent death many times over through the years, from his unabashed terrorist days to his corrupt tenure at the head of the Palestinian Authority. The man who walked away from the offer made at Camp David has forfeited forever his right to complain of unfair treatment. If Arafat is killed or deposed, I'll shed tears for those who'll suffer in the aftermath, but none for him.

Ariel Sharon, too, no sympathy for the psychotic. How much proof will it take to convince Israelis that Sharon's tit-for-tat drama queen escalation is not merely inhumanely cruel but a miserable failure even on its own thuggish terms? The old warrior is too hardened and dim-sighted to understand that threatening Arafat personally is a strategy without success, let alone to ask for sympathy on this point.

When it comes to Arafat the man, Israel is in a tough bind. If he goes, perhaps the last moderating influence, however weak, in the Palestinian West Bank will be gone. There is no hope for a negotatiated settlement without Arafat, or at least no hope substantial enough to put a probability on. But, as Sharon's hawks are failing to learn, keeping Arafat around so they can push him around is no better. The man simply cannot be intimidated or disciplined into reining in the violence. Not even cutting off the power and surrounding him with troops has the desired effect. All he does is wave his arms and rant about martyrdom.

Has the man gone off the deep end? I don't know. Many people have spent many years trying to comprehend Yasser Arafat's furtive psychology, without much apparent success. But I don't think it matters much, since, as I've suggested, he's no longer in a position to control much of what happens on the ground. Other than as a study of human behavior under mortal stress and for their effects in the international realm of opinion, Yasser Arafat's personal reactions are not interesting or important. Sure, he's the titular head of the Palestinian Authority, but he no longer has any real authority over the Palestinians in any ways that matter to the Israelis.

And that's exactly the problem. The political processes of the last few years have worked to remove Arafat's ability to stand in for the rest of Palestine, to speak for it and to persuade it of things. But because Israel, for all sorts of reasons, some good and some unconscionable, cannot deal directly with the rest of Palestine, because Israel cannot persuade, cajole, or intimidate Palestine into cutting off its exports of suicide bombers, it has relied on the Palestinian Authority to mediate for it. The Authority -- usually meaning Arafat -- could be pressured, bribed, or tricked in ways that the Palestinian "street" could not. Certainly, Israel resented the Authority, but its existence gave Israel far more traction in the occupied territories than it would otherwise have enjoyed.

Put another way, Yasser Arafat was a hostage, held by Israel to ensure good Palestinian behavior. If the Palestinians did something Israel didn't like, it could threaten to hurt the hostage: cut off an ear, cut off water transfers to the Authority. Good behavior meant fewer travel restrictions, more sovereignty for the Authority, better food in the cell. And in these terms, the hostage's family and friends just stopped cooperating with the captors. They decided that he was never going to be set free, or that they didn't really want him back, or that one doesn't negotiate with hostage-takers who have passed a certain level of repugnant behavior. You could even explain Arafat's stoic martyr complex this way: he's given up on his own chances, and he's not going to cooperate with his captors in making the videotape they want to send to the press.


Kidnapping and the exchange of hostages are delicate arts. No one holds captives just to be cruel, not even Keyser Soze. It's a calculated affair, done with some goal in mind, whether it be to make money, to enforce loyalty, or to get your own friends out of captivity ; the holding, the killing, and the setting-free are all done with the hope of realizing that goal. The power to release or to murder is a great one, but in the instant the kidnapper does either, his influence ends. So hostage negotiations are a complicated business, with demands and counter-offers carefully calibrated against what the captor thinks he can get. Set the price too high and there's no point; you might as well be in the murder business. Hostages are only as good as the influence they can exert on their communities, whether through commands from captivity or through appeals for help. Those kidnappers who cannot act with subtlety do not do well at this dance. Danny Pearl's captors had no realistic idea what their hostage was worth; neither does Ariel Sharon.

The undercurrent of menace in the captor-hostage relationship, with its disturbing hints of mutual dependency, shows up all over the place once you think to look for it. Arthur Anderson is a hostage: unless the partners behind it settle, the Department of Justice is threatening to go ahead with the execution, to press a criminal case whose fines could destroy the company. The government doesn't want that to happen -- they want guilty individuals to pay and the corporate culture to clean itself up -- but it's figuring that the partners have too much at stake in the company to let it die.

The major Internet companies are looking more and more like hostages, too. The closed-content people -- the movie studios and record labels, the Scientologists, the FBI, and everyone else who's afraid of the evildoers lurking on the Big Bad Internet -- can't just go out and make average users do their bidding, so they're taking hostages. ISPs make nice hostages: send them a legal notice threatening big trouble and they'll do what they can to help you take care of the evildoers in their neighborhood. Need some files taken down or a packet-sniffer installed? No problem, sir, now please don't hurt me.

Software companies make good hostages, too: if they're big enough to be incorporated, they're big enough to pressure. And that means trusted computing, closed systems, geographic user tracking, IP banning, registration-required subscription services, central servers, persistent IDs, and so on and so forth. All the usual rules apply, especially the one against killing your captives prematurely. You can't just go out and sue anyone who makes a product you don't like into non-existence, because eventually the people you need to suppress are the widely dispersed end users you were having such trouble with in the first place. You need to let the existing companies stand, or at least enough of them to keep the users involved with you. When it killed Napster, the RIAA got Gnutella, Freenet, and Morpheus. Better, perhaps, for it to have let Napster live, to have lured Napster's user base into paying a little money now, more later, than to have so easily surrendered what influence over them it had already built up.

The ultimate captors, of course, are governments. Their monopoly on force is also a monopoly on inprisonment, and governments keep prisoner far more people than any private-sector captivity concerns. It's not just literal captivity, though: the most basic activity of government is the taking of hostages. From birth, a government acquires hostages against its citizens, insurance against whatever far-off treachery lurks in their hearts. The consent of the governed is nothing more or less than the citizenry's tacit agreement to the government's knowing where they live, what they own, and how to get at them in case they start stirring up trouble.

Some governments make this role more explicit than others. The Japanese shoguns, like the Bourbon kings, kept their nobles' families at the royal palace under careful -- if luxurious -- guard. The Nazis made a systematic study of effective hostage-taking, posting lists of those to be executed in case of partisan raids, using the Jewish Councils to do their work for them in the ghettos.

Other governments work at a more metaphorical level: when people are more attached to their possessions than they are to their friends, financial hostages work just as well. Bail bonds and the overhanging threat of the repo man are both hostages, of a sort: do what we say, or else. Even these governments won't blink at actual human coercion now and then, though: misbehave and they'll come and take your children away. Not that they come and take them away very often, but the threat is enough to keep a lot of people in line.

When you live in society, when you live in a nation, you're every day building up relationships. It's a truism that every human contact brings the risk of pain with it, but it always seems to be the governments who go after those links for the purpose of pain: to make witnesses turn states' evidence, to keep you from speeding, to muscle dissidents into silence.

And they can do it because in the very act of living your life from day to day, you yourself leave behind you the trail of breadcrumbs leading to your hostages. It's not just your credit card records and mortgage application; it's also your conversations with your neighbors and your letters to the editor. Whatever hold you have on other people, whatever social and political acts bring meaning to your life -- these things are also holds that others have on you, are also clues telling them who to kidnap when the times comes to bully you. The only way to break free from a political entity's persuasive power is to leave it no holds at all on you, no evidence of your existence -- which also leaves it no reason to bother about you, since you are no threat to it.

Because if we are all the hostages of our governments, they are also our hostages too. And to the extent that we want our governments to act constructively, in our interest or for the good of all, we too must hold our noses and take part in this messy and disgusting business, must accomodate ourselves to the terrors of the hostage negotiation. We too, have threats; we too, have prisoners to kill. And however rarely exercised the threat of rebellion may be, however rarely we murder our obedience while the camera rolls, it's that threat, lurking quietly in the background, that gives us any power at all in the negotiation.

Which is, on one way of looking at things, exactly the threat that Ariel Sharon is incapable of comprehending.