Centanni and Wiig Escape: A Celebration and Lessons Learned

My favorite war movies are the ones where people – soldiers or civilians – escape from a prison camp or a concentration camp. I saw The Great Escape when it first came out in 1963, and have seen it at least five times since. I still remember my mother, as soon as we got home from the movie, playing the theme song on the piano. I missed Von Ryan’s Express when it first came out, but I’ve seen it on TV, in whole or in part, more than a dozen times since. My second-favorite escape movie is Escape From Sobibor, which is about civilians, mainly Jews, escaping from a Nazi concentration camp. Part of what makes it so compelling is that in the last few minutes, as the prisoners escape, the action freezes on a person or couple every few seconds, and the narrator, the late Howard K. Smith of TV-news fame, tells us where those people live now – some in Israel, some in New York, some in Los Angeles, etc. That makes the escape so real because it reminds us that this movie is about real human beings. My all-time favorite escape movie is Schindler’s List. What I like about escape war movies is, well, the escape. In the usual war movie, even when I’m cheering for the Allies, I remember that that poor German soldier was probably drafted and was probably about as innocent as the American or British soldier. But in escape movies, the people escaping are mainly trying to save themselves and aren’t trying to kill others, except those who prevent them. I thought of all this while watching Fox News Channel journalists Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig being interviewed by Greta van Susteren on Aug. 29. They recounted how they were freed by some Palestinian kidnappers after almost two weeks of captivity in Gaza.

I know that writers on Antiwar.com rarely mention Fox News without criticizing it, but what I saw on Aug. 29 was a wonderful human hour. Reporter Centanni and cameraman Wiig described how they were captured and treated, and told of the range of emotions they went through – fear of being murdered, hope that people on the outside were working to free them, and elation at finally being freed. My heart went out to them. Here they were – totally innocent people just doing their job, which was simply to report on Palestinians in Gaza. Yet they were kidnapped by some pretty nasty people. Whenever an innocent person is freed, I feel elation.

One of the best parts of the one-hour show was the interview with Wiig’s wife, Anita McNaught, a reporter for a New Zealand television station. McNaught is truly an impressive woman. At the time her husband was kidnapped, she was in Damascus. As soon as she heard, she hurried to Gaza and took charge.

McNaught recounted:

"But, basically you’re after a number of things. You need to find information out about where he might be, who might have him, and then find out the why. And, in finding out the why, perhaps you find an answer to how to get him out.

"You’re trying to take the cultural temperature, you know. Is hostage taking a popular thing or an unpopular thing? What’s the public mood? Is there going to be a way that you can get the public on [your?] side in some way to get pressure applied from behind, if you like, to release him?

"You’re looking to find sympathetic people who will go beyond what is safe or normal for them to take you to information that might find them. And, in addition, you’re trying to get some kind of reassurance or message to the guys who are in there and you don’t know what they’re going to find out from it."

Notice that McNaught made distinctions among individuals. She didn’t say, "Oh, those horrible Palestinians." Instead she realized that she needed information so that she could distinguish the horrible ones – the kidnappers and those who supported them – from the good ones – those who were against the kidnapping. And her quest was rewarded. McNaught continued:

"Gazans came to us and said, ‘We’re appalled by this.’

"They came to us as individuals. They came to us as mothers and wives of prisoners in Israeli jails. And they came to us as journalists. And they came to us as politicians. There wasn’t anyone we met who didn’t think this was disastrous."

Similarly, Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin got involved from the start, talking to Palestinians and asking them to get cooperation from locals so that they could identify the kidnappers. On the Aug. 31 episode of Hannity and Colmes, Griffin told how her and her team’s careful intelligence work paid off. They were finally able to determine who had done the kidnapping and communicate this fact to the various other Palestinian factions. This gave them leverage over various powerful Palestinians, who then persuaded or threatened the kidnappers to release the hostages.

So not just McNaught of New Zealand television, but also Griffin of Fox, made distinctions among individuals. Why do I emphasize this? Because so many of the reporters and commentators on Fox News lump together everyone in a particular country and attribute to them the characteristics they don’t like about some of the people in that country. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Fox News analysts Fred Barnes or Mort Kondracke, for example, talk about "the French" with a supercilious sneer, as if all French people are cowards who just want to appease militant Islam. Why did Griffin and other Fox employees in the Middle East make distinctions among Palestinians? Because the stakes were so high. Fox had two employees, two flesh-and-blood human beings whom they cared about, whose lives were in danger. With such huge stakes, Griffin et al. made the careful distinctions that needed to be made. How, you might ask, could two lives be such a big stake when thousands of other lives in the Middle East, those of Palestinians, Iraqis, U.S. soldiers, and British soldiers, don’t seem to be a big stake? That doesn’t make sense, does it? Actually, and unfortunately, it does. The Fox News people cared about their employees and colleagues and acted accordingly. But they don’t care nearly as much, understandably, about strangers – even if many strangers are in danger and if some of those strangers are Americans. Thus, we often get the sloppy analysis of the stakes in Iraq or in the Middle East in general, rather than the focused careful analysis that Anita McNaught and Jennifer Griffin engaged in when their loved ones and colleagues were at risk.

If you think I’m exaggerating, ask yourself this. Imagine you’re an innocent person captured by a Middle Eastern group. What would you prefer to be: an employee of Fox News, a random Palestinian, or a random U.S. soldier?

If you’ve answered that you’d opt to be a Fox News employee, you’ve said that you trust your employer more than you trust, among others, the U.S. government. Me too. So does it really make sense to put the U.S. government in a position where it has power over not two people, but, instead, millions of people?

Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at http://econlog.econlib.org