Camels in the Sahara near In Aménas, the site of the hostage crisis. Credit: Flickr/albatros11.
Barack Obama and his political advisors surely thought that gun control would dominate the headlines for days to come after the president announced his controversial proposals. But some armed men in a remote gas drilling site in the Sahara desert had other ideas.
The pundits love to tell us that a president who focuses on domestic policy is inevitably frustrated, because there are bound to be unexpected crises abroad that demand his, and the nation’s, attention. But there’s really nothing inevitable about it. It’s a choice that the public, and the news media who must sell their wares to the public, make.
Certainly the lives of the people at risk in the Sahara are important. It’s a tragedy when anyone is killed. But let’s face it. A handful of American lives may be lost in Algeria; maybe not. Whatever the outcome, this incident will soon disappear down the American memory hole.
In the gun control debate, on the other hand, we’re talking about a continuing threat to a huge number of Americans. Thousands of lives will surely be lost this year, and next year, and the year after that, ad infinitum, if the laws aren’t changed. Yet the gun control issue was quickly eclipsed by the public’s rapt attention to the hostage drama in the desert.
Historians may not be surprised. White Americans have been fascinated by stories of their own people being taken hostage by “bad guys” ever since the seventeenth century.
Back then, many colonists were captured by native warriors. To the native Americans it was perfectly logical: Whenever some of their people were killed by whites, they would capture -- not kill -- a roughly equivalent number of whites to replace the lost members of their community. It wasn’t about good destroying evil. It was about maintaining an approximate balance.
But the whites didn’t understand that. As most of them told the story, absolutely good (white) people were locked in an endless struggle with absolutely evil (native) people. When whites were taken captive by natives, whites typically saw it as a violation of the most basic moral rule: good should triumph over evil. When whites escaped, it was easy to explain it as an act of God, restoring the proper moral order of the universe.
That’s how Mary Rowlandson told the story of her captivity in The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682), a book that quickly became a best-seller and continued to be widely read for more than a century. But Rowlandson’s is only the most famous of the many so-called captivity narratives that have captivated the imaginations of white Americans ever since.
What makes these stories so compelling? Historians have made a cottage industry out of finding new answers to that question. One intriguing theory begins with a well-documented observation: Plenty of captured whites were in no rush to go home. A good number chose to “go native” and live out their rest of their lives among the Indians.
This widely known fact freaked out a lot of white people; it turned their world upside down. If the “good” voluntarily chose to blend into the “evil,” how could anyone be sure anymore where the line was that separated the two? And if that line was blurred, how could there be any moral order at all?
What these whites needed, above all, was reassurance that the moral line dividing them from the native people was absolute, impermeable, and immutable. That’s why captivity narratives were so popular (this theory goes): In these tales, the whites were always absolutely good and the natives absolutely evil. Telling and reading the stories over and over again was a way of reaffirming the simplistic moral fantasy as the true reality, which made it easier to treat the observable, empirical world as if it were not real.
Is it still going on today? The parallel is far from perfect. There’s no evidence that armed Muslim forces want to capture white Americans to populate Muslim communities. Yet white America still has an insatiable appetite for captivity narratives.
And the reasons behind that appetite may very well be much the same. Even if very few white Americans have visibly “joined Al Qaeda” (whatever, exactly, that might mean), lots of white Americans feel increasingly unsure that they can see a clear-cut, absolute line between good and evil.
The gun control debate is a fine example. While some Americans are sure that stricter gun laws would be good, and some are sure those same laws would be evil, a vast number in between aren’t quite sure of anything. So the public as a whole is in a state of moral confusion. The same is true, of course, about so many other issues.
On at least one point, though, there is an overwhelming consensus: Al Qaeda (whatever it may be) is evil. So when America is attacked by, or pitted against, Al Qaeda, America is self-evidently good.
Ditto when Americans are captured by Al Qaeda -- especially if the capture is “masterminded” by a fierce-looking, black-turbaned, one-eyed Muslim with the exotic name Mokhtar Belmokhtar, AKA “the Uncatchable.” It sounds too wicked to be true, like something “straight out of central casting,“ as the Times of London said -- although in a grade-B Hollywood movie, where we would expect to find him, he would be called simply “the Evil One.”
It’s precisely the mythic quality of this story, and of all captivity narratives, that makes them so fascinating. In myth, as in Hollywood, all the world’s shades of grade can be boiled down to simple black and white.
There’s a perverse sort of advantage when good people are captured by evildoers rather than killed outright. Attacks and battles are usually short-lived affairs. The story is told, and then we’re quickly on to the next story. Nothing is as stale as yesterday’s news.
But a hostage crisis can continue for a long time. Day after day we get to see or read the captivity narrative. And each repetition offers more reassurance that, despite all our disputes and uncertainties, the struggle of good against evil goes on. So we know there are still some absolutes to provide order in our moral universe.
This theory that explains the popularity of captivity narratives also explains why the public would so quickly switch its focus from gun control to the drama unfolding in the Sahara. The gun debate only reinforces the sense that no one knows any longer what’s good and what’s bad. The endless news about the hostage crisis eases that disturbing feeling and replaces it with a satisfying reassurance that, ultimately, all is still right with the world -- even if a bunch of people have to die to prove it.
(For a look at the mythic qualities of the gun control debate, see my recent post on ReligionDispatches.org.)