TCS Daily

You Only Die Once

By Val MacQueen - October 12, 2004 12:00 AM

British hostage Kenneth Bigley, whose head was severed from his body last week in Iraq by an outfit calling itself the Tawid & Jihad Group, had lived a life not without incident.

Born in the decaying port city of Liverpool 62 years ago, Bigley had started off conventionally enough, taking a degree in engineering, marrying and producing two sons. At the age of 17, one of his sons, cycling to the bank, was struck by a car and killed.

The family immigrated to Australia, but couldn't make a go of it and moved on to New Zealand, before returning, some years later, to the United Kingdom where Bigley and his wife started a small business. But Liverpool had become too violent and they moved on once again, to the southwest of England to run a pub. Eventually the marriage broke up, and Bigley sought advice about his future from his brother Paul, who had pursued a lucrative career in the construction industry in the Middle East.

Thus, in young middle age, when others are toying with the notion of early retirement, Kenneth Bigley resumed his profession and became a kind of soldier of fortune, kicking around the Middle East for the next 20 years, accepting the privations expats expect to endure in places like Saudi Arabia in return for the mythical amounts of money they can earn. Some engineers are earning $1,600 or more per day, untaxed, on some assignments and figure it's well worth doing without alcohol or a social life for a few months, or even years. They can always fly out to the United Arab Emirates or Jordan for weekend r&r when it gets too grim.

Like others of the drifting expat construction clan, Bigley followed the money. And like other single men in the clan with money burning a hole in their pockets, he ran across a Thai girl - probably working as a maid in the Emirates - perhaps at a "tea dance" or a bar on her day off - and, following the script, married her and planned a retirement in Thailand on a mango plantation he'd bought.

He wanted to do just one more assignment and accepted a job in Iraq, despite his family, including his brother who had been an expat in the Middle East all his working life, begging him not to go, warning him of the volatility. He dismissed their concerns for his safety with a lighthearted "You only die once."

So he took the assignment with the Gulf Services Group. Thus the soldier of fortune was soon to become a hostage to fortune

As events turned out, Bigley died many times after he was kidnapped from the luxury home he was sharing in the outskirts of Baghdad with two American colleagues, Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong. The terrorists were demanding an exchange of prisoners: two Iraqi female terrorists being held by the Americans in Baghdad for the three Western hostages. When the Americans said "no dice", both the American hostages summarily had their heads hacked off their bodies, the horror being recorded by the murderers on videotape.

Bigley knew he was next and, at age 62, went on television at the behest of his captors to tearfully plead with the British government to intercede by persuading the Americans to release the two female Iraqi scientists in return for his life.

The American government had not reacted overtly to the kidnapping and barbaric deaths of Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong and the American media had been cautious about saying anything inflammatory that might hinder whatever the government was doing behind the scenes.

By contrast, the British media and the British government, in the person of Tony Blair, went into emotive overdrive. The more sophisticated American approach was eschewed as the facile sentimentality flowed like wine, regardless of the easily foreseen consequences.

The British public, especially those whose distaste for the war has intensified over the last few months, whipped up by a sympathetic press, including the rabidly anti-war BBC, began to confuse the issue, ignorantly conflating Bigley's presence in the country with the American and British military presence. That Bigley was a private citizen who had chosen to go to Iraq under his own steam, chasing the money (as was his right) was confused with a non-existent Bigley, admiring of all things Islamic and generously giving of his talents to help the Iraqi people get a water supply or an electricity supply or new roads - or whatever - and the Coalition aggression provoked the terrorists to kidnap him and murder his colleagues.

The Messianic Tony Blair, for whom not a sparrow falls but he does not want to give the eulogy, immediately placed himself in the foolish Carteresque position of getting involved with Bigley's family, receiving them at Downing Street, as an equally powerless to help President Jimmy Carter got himself all entangled with the families of the Iran hostages 20 years ago. Of course, Blair could do nothing. He could not give in to the kidnappers' demands and as the Brits and Americans had no idea where Bigley was being held, he couldn't send in a rescue helicopter, even had this been judged wise. As the head of government, he should have remained remote, no matter how sympathetic in private. But Blair yearns to shed his light upon the world.

The prime minister's personal involvement in the case was noted by the terrorists. Instead of murdering Bigley immediately after dispatching his colleagues, they decided to wait and see how this one played. Thus began a nightmarish three weeks of sadistic false hope against the probable unspeakable reality.

Bigley's brother Paul, now living in Amsterdam, with his own years of experience of kicking around the Middle East, has a grasp of the mindset of this particular brand of fanatical Middle Easterner, and with his own contacts in the area, began to conduct freelance British foreign policy. At the same time, he emerged as the most media savvy member of the family. Other members of his immediate family are another brother, Bigley's surviving son Craig, and his 86-year-old mother. Oh, and the Thai wife who remained safely in Thailand on the mango plantation issuing her own dramatic pleas, in Thai, for his release and once demonstrating a profound failure to understand the issue by making a promise to become a Buddhist nun if her husband were to be released.

All this was faithfully detailed by the BBC, at length. Blair rose to the publicity bait, making public statements that the British government was unable to negotiate with terrorists, and at the same time letting it be known that they were trying to get in contact with the terrorists. Even the colorless - and clueless - dhimmi-in-chief also known as British Foreign Minister Jack Straw raced off to visit the family - to what purpose, who knows?

All this government activity served to keep Kenneth Bigley alive as the terrorists decided how to use the British government's interest in his case to their best advantage. The next video appeared around a week later. This time he was clad in what Mark Steyn refers to as "Gitmo chic" and was crouching in a crude cage looking drawn and distressed. The BBC got the point in a heartbeat. See? Holding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay is as illegal as holding them in Iraq!

The cast of characters grew. There was Paul Bigley conducting alternate foreign policy. Enter stage right that unlikely champion of freedom Muammar Ghadafi, long time funder of terrorism, including the downed 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, 25 years ago, to plead for Bigley's release. Two members of the British Islamic Council from Liverpool made a personal pilgrimage to Iraq to plead for Bigley's life, although with whom they pleaded, we never found out.

After two and a half weeks of agony, during which Bigley's mother was hospitalized twice, Tony Blair jetted off to save Africa, and it was while he was in Sudan that the terrorists made their final video of Bigley as he was made to kneel on the floor and held down by three men as another sawed off his head and held it up to the camera.

The people of Liverpool, who had been the keening spear carriers throughout the drama, surged into squares and churches with candles and tears for an orgy of recreational grief. Kenneth Bigley had not lived in Liverpool for 25 years, had shown absolutely no interest in his home town over the years and wasn't known personally to any of them. But they gathered not with anger, not with rage, not with a cry for vengeance against the sheer evil of militant Islam. Just passive faux sorrow. A quiescence reminiscent of the response of the people of Madrid less than a year ago to the terrorist attacks in their city. Some MadrileƱos held up signs saying, "Say no to terrorism" while others held signs saying "Paz". And they voted in the anti-war candidate who had promised to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, as directed by their attackers. Liverpool held multi-faith services. And declared a day of citywide mourning with flags flying at half staff, as for the death of a monarch or a national tragedy.

Kenneth Bigley had first bid the city adieu when he emigrated to Australia decades before, but Liverpudlians are not to be robbed of their moment in the spotlight. What comfort they imagine their cheap cellophane-wrapped flowers and grossly inappropriate teddy bears left in stacks in public places would afford Bigley's Liverpool domiciled hideously bereaved family, we can only guess. My guess is, it has nothing to do with the privately grieving family and everything to do with participation in the drama by proxy. As British prison doctor and columnist Anthony Daniels, addressing the Princess Diana style outpourings over Kenneth Bigley's death wrote in The Sunday Telegraph: "Mawkishness is the tribute that indifference pays to solidarity."

As a representative of an administration in which public displays of feelings trump rational thought and personal presentation trumps integrity, the bland, grey, barely sentient foreign secretary Jack Straw will surely grace with his presence the inevitable memorial service for a person none of them knew. And if the service doesn't feature a recording of fellow son of Liverpool John Lennon singing "Imagine" and "Give Peace A Chance", I'll eat my keffiyah.

Val MacQueen is a frequent TCS Contributor. She lives in the south of France.


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