You will be at your breakfast table, and you will not be able to turn away from the images. An American, impossibly young and healthy, will be looking back at you. The lighting will be bad. but you will see the bruises on his face, the redness in his eyes. Sweat glistening on the shaven head. A soldier, he will be in his government issued brown undershirt. Stripped of his flack-jacket and tunic. Stripped of his bluster and bravado, you will see his fear.
He will speak words that are not his own. His statement will sound bizarre delivered with his Midwestern dialect. The word order askew. The eyes darting and the delivery halting as if coached along from outside the frame.
When he is finished with his confession the video image will shake and then come to rest on another man. An Afghan wearing the dark wrappings and headdress of the Taliban. Speaking excitedly in his own language for a moment. And when he is through with his address he will move across the drab room towards the American, who will be seated and bound. The Afghan will be holding a long, curved knife.
And the image before you at your breakfast table will change to the female on the sofa at the network. She will be visibly shaken, aided by several minutes of discussions with her producer on just the right tone to portray when the video ends. The male on the sofa will explain that for reasons of "sensitivity" the network decided to edit the video and he will confirm that the young Ranger was indeed executed slowly and painfully on camera. His eyes will moisten. Fade to commercial.
A car company will tell you that in this time of national difficulty they are here to help with 0.0 percent financing.
None of the networks will show the throat cutting itself. For that, one will have to go to any of a number of websites that will let you download it, stream it, or access video capture still images.
Don't think this will happen? DonÕt be so sure.
The Afghanistan Mujahadin that fought the Russian Army in the 1980's turned on their video cameras and slit the throats of many a young Russian soldier, sending the tapes to the enemy. They did it to demoralize, to horrify. The Taliban seems to prefer the hanging of it's victims from cranes and towers, or big, outdoor, public executions and punitve amputations, but that might be a tough stage direction inside an underground bunker.
Sheik Mullah Mohammed Umar, the leader of the Taliban (to call him "spiritual leader" as many do is to marginalize his importance), is fixated on what he feels is the lack of American will to accept losses. Time and again he has brought up Somalia, where a dead American Army Ranger was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu and American viewers got to see the bound, broken body piped into their living rooms. The U.S. pulled out of the country soon after. Umar and his ilk are now awaiting their chance to provide the American viewing audience with an even more graphic postcard from abroad.
One imagines Sheik Umar and Osama bin Ladin must be amazed by the bully pulpit they have at their disposal. Either must know that any statement they make will be broadcast to the American people soon after, without any checking of the verity of the allegations or censoring of the threats or indictments of the U.S. government or it's military. When the U.S. National Security Advisor spoke with the network heads and asked them to police themselves and use restraint when broadcasting across the country unedited footage from the leaders of our enemies, as it is clear there exist unknown numbers of their followers hidden among us, it was portrayed by many in the media as an attack on the freedom of the press and heavy-handed White House bullying. Do you think that a tape of the President of the United States rushed to the news channels would be put on the air without any review or editing? Not a chance.
Score one for the bad guys.
So, let's accept that the Taliban will execute a military prisoner on camera. Who is to say the media will air it?
Anyone who saw the footage of the dead Ranger in his under shorts being pulled behind the truck in Somalia, which is to say anyone who owned a television set in October of 1993, knows the American media has no overwhelming aversion to airing American military casualties, no matter how brutally displayed.
Anyone who saw the footage of the American and British aircrews captured by the Iraqis in the Gulf War, which is to say anyone who owned a television in February of 1991, knows the American media has no moral difficulties broadcasting enemy propaganda spewed from the mouths of injured and threatened captives.
Put these events together in one video and what do you have?
Must see TV.
To call the American media accessory to whatever crime they put on their news programs is, admittedly, overstating it a bit. The Taliban will execute whomever they choose to execute whether or not we get to watch it over a bowl of corn flakes. But a public outcry against any airing of prisoner videos, no matter what the situation, before the fact would send a message to the networks that the public will not allow themselves to be subjected to a propaganda war at the expense of a young man's life or a family's unimaginable horror. And a solitary voice from the U.S. television networks to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based "all Taliban, all the time" news station that has the most contact with Umar and his minions would tell the powers that are soon not to be in Kabul that any Rangers they have in their cells may have to die alone in the dark but will not be used as publicity shills to promote the myriad dangers of messing with Afghan warriors.
Afghanistan must be a miserable place to die. Rudyard Kipling wrote of the perils of fighting there in the early 1840's, in a war that claimed 12,000 British fighters.
"When you're wounded and left, On Afghanistan's plains, And the women come out, To cut up your remains, Just roll on your rifle, And blow out your brains, And go to your Gawd, Like a soldier." Kipling's soldier surely could not appreciate how lucky he was, as 160 years later a condemned young man may well be used as an unwitting pawn in the powerful war of propaganda and thus have his last terrible moments documented for sick posterity under the justification of reporting the news.
(Mark Greaney is an international-account manager at Sofamor Danek).