Norman Kember comes home: foolhardy or rational?

Norman Kember, a 74-year-old Briton from Pinner, was one of four soi-disants Christian Peacemakers kidnapped in Iraq 119 days ago.  One, an American, was murdered.  On Thursday, 23 March, Kember and his remaining two fellow-hostages, both Canadians, were rescued in a bloodless, multi-national military operation spear-headed by the SAS.  Martin Kelly’s short, sharp and sensible blog post betrays a certain impatience with Professor Kember’s escapade:

"Whilst the release of Norman Kember from his captivity at the hands of Iraqi neck-smiters is certainly to be welcomed, one hopes he’s flying home commercially.  He made his own way there, so he can make his own way back.  Preferably with a bill from the SAS in his pocket."

I agree with that.  
In the past 24 hours the question of Kember’s attitude to the military and to their action in rescuing him (when he had said before he was kidnapped that in such an event he wouldn’t want Professor and Mrs Kember reunitedany military operation to rescue him) has been in all the headlines and lead reports here in Britain, the subject of heated discussion in the chat shows and current affairs discussion programmes, and extensively argued out in the blogs (2,430 posts currently contain references to Norman Kember, according to Technorati).  Did he or didn’t he, when first released, thank the SAS special forces and other military who rescued him and the two Canadians?  Last night on television General Sir Michael Jackson, Chief of Defence Staff, said he had not thanked his rescuers, unless he (Jackson) had missed it.  Uproar! — see e.g. today’s report in The Times Online, headed: "Army’s top general attacks Kember for failing to thank SAS rescue team".   Kember did include a word of thanks to the soldiers in his formal statement  issued this afternoon on his return home to Pinner, but it wasn’t much better than perfunctory —  

"Another group that I hope you do not forget are the relatives of British soldiers killed or wounded in Iraq.  I do not believe that a lasting peace is achieved by armed force, but I pay tribute to their courage and thank those who played a part in my release."

And at least one spokesperson for his religious organisation, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), has been quoted as answering criticisms (of Kember’s action in going to Iraq when he knew he was liable to be kidnapped, and of his ungracious reluctance to thank his rescuers)  by pointing out that he had made it clear that he didn’t want the military to do anything for him if he was captured, and that since his express wishes had been ignored, it was hardly surprising that he had been in no hurry to say thank you.  This is partially contradicted by a statement from CPT according to which —

The Rev Bob Gardiner, of Harrow Baptist Church, said: "We are grateful to the British government for its close co-operation with myself and the Kember family since Norman was kidnapped in November.  We were impressed by the sensitivity with which it responded to our concerns about any possible use of force in any rescue attempt.   We are thankful for the way in which they honoured their promises to intervene only when there was a considerable degree of assurance that there would be no loss of life."

The FCO and MOD have declined to confirm that any such promises were given.  But it saves face all round to pretend that they were, even if they were not; and it’s difficult to believe that they could have been.  An SAS source has been quoted as saying that the army in Iraq could do without having to divert scarce resources to rescuing people who had ignored official advice not to go to Iraq; they had enough on their plates without that.  Meanwhile, according to the same BBC News report,

Despite the kidnappings, another CPT member, Jan Benvie has told BBC News she intends to go to Iraq in July.  She said she did not accept her presence should mean an extra responsibility for the security forces.

It’s not entirely clear what the CPT members have actually been doing in Iraq, although CPT claims to have been the first to discover and publicise the abuses at Abu Ghraib and also abuses of Iraqi detainees by British soldiers.  They say they have been building bridges and making peace by their day-to-day contacts with Iraqis in the course of shopping, doing the laundry, etc. 

According to the BBC, "Between 10 and 40 Iraqis are kidnapped every day – often children snatched on their way to school and held for a ransom of between £3,000 and £30,000."
It may not be entirely fair to suspect Kember and his three kidnapped companions of actively seeking Christian martyrdom, General Gordon style, but they do seem to have acted with culpable disregard of the possible implications for others of their own recklessness.  It’s all very well to make a kind of Living Will with instructions that there’s to be no military action to rescue you if you’re captured (or alternatively that there’s to be no rescue attempt if there’s a risk of loss of life in the process, which is rather different), but such demands are wholly unrealistic.  No government could contemplate confronting public opinion at home with an abject failure to take whatever action might be necessary, at almost any cost[1], to save its citizens whose lives are in imminent danger, on the excuse that the captives had said they didn’t want to be rescued by soldiers: and any military rescue attempt is bound to entail a risk that people will be killed or wounded.
[1] According to the Times report  quoted earlier, —

The hunt for Norman Kember and his fellow hostages involved:
250 men from the Task Force Black US/British/Australian counter-kidnap unit;
100 men from Task Force Maroon, the Paras and Royal Marines backing special forces;
15 men in helicopter crews;
AND tens of thousands of pounds spent on helicopter and transport aircraft flights.

Which I suppose says it all.  If a single British or other soldier had been killed in the course of the rescue operation, the welcome home for Mr Kember might have been a good deal cooler.  Professor Kember’s statement today ended: 

"I now need to reflect on my experience – was I foolhardy or rational? – and also to enjoy freedom in peace and quiet."

He shouldn’t need very much time for reflection to arrive at the obvious answer to his own question.

Postscript:  For an interesting discussion of the economics of dangerous activities voluntarily undertaken by individuals regardless of the potential cost to public funds and risks to the lives of others, look here.


6 Responses

  1. John Miles says:

    The Times repoort you quote makes it look as if Mr Kember’s rescue cost us millions, if not billions, of pounds.
    How realistic is this?
    What would all our people have been doing if it hadn’t been for Mr Kember? Would they have been repatriated and demobbed?
    Would the helicopters and transport aicraft involved have been decommissioned and mothballed?
    Or would they just carried on doing what they normally do, which presumably includes training for the next emergency to come along?
    It’s quite on the cards that if it weren’t for Mr Kember his kidnappers would have taken somebody else.
    The next victim could well be some ex-member of the SAS, now working as a security guard for some firm with a fat contract to rebuild some of Iraq’s bombed out infrastructure.
    Who should pay for his rescue?

    Brian comments:  I suggest that the issue here is the opportunity cost of the rescue, rather than the financial cost.  If all these men (and women?) and helicopters and other aircraft and vehicles and their arms and equipment had not had to be diverted to the operation to rescue Mr (Professor???) Kember, they could have been much more productively employed in training the Iraqi security forces, acting as back-up support to Iraqi security forces’ operations, patrolling to deter or prevent insurgent attacks on Iraqi civilians, moving troops to places where they were most needed, guarding vulnerable buildings or places where Iraqis congregate such as mosques and army recruitment offices, etc. 

    However, Ministry of Defence purists would probably assert that there was a financial cost too.  When the armed forces are used to carry out or protect the activities of another government department, the latter invariably gets presented subsequently with an enormous bill which can even include the costs of the pensions of the personnel involved attributable to the time they spent on the operation in question, plus of course their salaries and allowances, costs of feeding them and providing medical attention, accommodation costs, petrol, aircraft and vehicle depreciation, and so forth.  At least that’s what used to happen in my day: perhaps it has changed now.  Of course these are not additional costs to the taxpayer:  it’s simply a question of which departmental budget is required to foot the bill — and very few other departments have anything like as big a budget as the MOD.  No wonder the MOD doesn’t go in for marginal cost pricing.  Anyway, these are essentially book-keeping issues.  The opportunity cost is the real worry. 

  2. John Miles says:

    Your remarks on opportunity cost are lucid and eminently rational, but how relevant are they to the case of Norman Kember?
    I imagine our forces realise that they will need to rescue kidnapped people from time to time, and allocate some of their resources to coping with the problem.
    The frequency of attempted kidnaps manly depends on two factors: how many, how able and how motivated are the kidnappers, and the availability of victims who are reasonably easy to kidnap.
    My assessment – which could of course be wildly wrong – is that the first of these is more or less constant; and that there are so many potential victims that a few more or less makes little difference. If Mr Kember had stayed at home they would very likely have picked on someone else
    None of this is likely to affect anyone’s views on Mr Kember.
    But what about our fellow citizens who chose to go to Iraq to make money? Should they be required to insure themselves against this kind of thing?
    Or should we just rescue them for free?
    (It seems to me your "opportunity cost" argument applies perhaps even more forcibly to the interdepartmental aguments you say are likely to ensue about whose budget the bill is to appear on.
    If all these Sir Humphreys are busy arguing about this they’re bound to have less time and energy available for doing whatever it is they normally do.)

    Brian replies:  It seems to me that ‘opportunity costs’ are indeed relevant, indeed the heart of the matter.  Rescuing hostages such as journalists without whom we wouldn’t know about what is being done in our name in Iraq, medics, relief and social workers, engineers and other people contributing to reconstruction following the ruination we have visited on the Iraqis, all that is well within the purposes for which we have our forces still in Iraq.  By contrast, rescuing people who have gone to Iraq against all the official advice of their government, who refuse to take even the most obvious and elementary security precautions, and above all who are not making any discernible contribution of any kind to the improvement of the lot of the Iraqi people — in short, who are there because it makes them feel good — is an unwarranted and unwelcome distraction for their rescuers from other much more worth-while activities (including rescuing people who have been behaving sensibly and taking reasonable precautions, are there for a recognisably valid purpose, and the value of whose contributions to the situation in Iraq outweighs the unavoidable risks they are taking, none of which applied to Mr Kember and his colleagues). 

    As for interdepartmental arguments about which costs are to fall on which department’s budget, such matters are simple and routine, they would almost never get anywhere near as high in the hierarchy as the permanent secretary (‘Sir Humphrey’), and they are unavoidable under almost any conceivable government system, indeed in any large organisation.  They would occupy a small amount of the time of junior officials.  Of course, like every conceivable activity, they incur an opportunity cost, but it’s not self-evident that the alternative activity that has to be foregone or deferred would necessarily, or even probably, be of greater value, since decisions affecting resource allocation have obviously got to be made, and have got to be discussed and agreed before they are made.  There’s no comparison between that and the opportunity cost of having dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people and huge quantities of aircraft, helicopters, vehicles, weapons and other materiel diverted from more worth-while purposes to the rescue, at high risk to their own lives and limbs, of a small group of self-indulgent people who should never have been there in the first place.  They were certainly brave, but they devoted their bravery to a sadly misconceived cause.

  3. Aidan says:

    You blame him for wasting resources on the rescue operation, but the decision to commit these was made by the government, not by him, who as far as I can understand, did not wish for any violent rescue attempt at all. As you say yourself, the principal reason for doing this is that the government feared public opinion if they did not. In other words, the government would rather ‘waste’ these scarce military resources and endanger the lives of our soldiers than bear public criticism for not rescuing him. Surely Norman Kember could not have been expected to voluntarily neglect his moral duty, because it might place the government in a position where it had to choose between embarrassment or wasting resources.
    Personally I think:
    1) Norman Kember believed that the biggest contribution that he could make to the victims of the war was to go there and do whatever he was doing. It doesn’t seem to me that it was going to do a lot, although I must admit I don’t know much about their work. On the other hand what can a single private individual do (write to their MP, distribute leaflets, keep a blog etc.)?Probably even more ineffective, so it’s entirely possible that this little was the most he could have done.
    2) Given his pacifism, hiring bodyguards would have been out (probably for budgetary reasons too), and he couldn’t have operated if he had stayed in the Green Zone, assuming he could get a slot there, which he probably couldn’t. There was therefore little he could have done to mitigate the danger.
    3) He knew that what he was doing was dangerous, but he believed the benefits outweighed the risks. You may not think this, particularly with the hindsight of his capture, but he did, and he had to take the decision based on what he knew and believed at that point.
    4) What he did was not self-indulgent, he was trying to help others. If this is self-indulgence, then so are all charitable works.
    5) One thing that he has achieved is to highlight the desperate security situation in Iraq, more so than any of the journalists currently operating there. Although his capture has incurred unforeseen costs, it has also had the unforeseen benefit of publicising the problems in Iraq which we are rapidly becoming blase about e.g. a bombing the size of 7/7 in Iraq barely makes the UK news at all, even on the day it happens.
    What would you have done in his place? If you decided not to go, what would you have done that would have benefitted the victims of the war instead?

    Brian comments:  Mr Kember’s behaviour was irresponsible because it entailed risks to others as well as to himself that were out of all proportion to any possible benefit conferred by his presence in Iraq, and because it diverted the resources of his rescuers from infinitely more useful purposes.  The only activity so far advanced by him and his team, so far as I have been able to discover, as justifying their presence in this hazardous environment has been that they would offer to do washing and shopping for Iraqis.   There can be no possible moral obligation or ethical justification for such fatuous behaviour.  The British and other forces who mounted the successful rescue were bound to try to save the three men, whether or not the three wanted to be rescued, not primarily because of fear of public opinion at home if they failed to do so (although public opinion would have been rightly outraged if the three had been left to their fate, especially after the murder of the fourth member of the group) but because of a general moral obligation to save life wherever possible.  It was akin to saving a would-be suicide from jumping from a high window-ledge:  the would-be suicide doesn’t want to be rescued but anyone with an ounce of ethical sense would try to stop him jumping anyway.  The idea that without the self-indulgent behaviour of the Kember group and the drama of their rescue, we wouldn’t have been aware of the appalling violence in Iraq, is frankly ridiculous:  no day goes by without extensive coverage of the mayhem in Iraq in newspapers and on television and radio in every civilised country in the world.  If Kember and co. had genuinely been helping others, e.g. by working for a bona fide charitable organisation in Iraq, they would perhaps not have been vulnerable to the charge of self-indulgence, although since almost all the ngo’s have withdrawn their expatriate staff in Iraq because of the danger to them, and western governments have all appealed to their citizens not to go to Iraq unless under official auspices, even that would have been reckless and irresponsible.  You say that Kember "couldn’t have operated" if he had been in the Green Zone (couldn’t have operated what?), but it transpires that he didn’t even try to get a place in the Green Zone because he regards the international and national authorities based there as "the enemy". 

    I’m glad that the three were rescued alive, sorry for the American who was murdered, admiring of the courage of the rescuers, but afraid that those rescued had not a shred of justification for their foolish and selfish actions.

  4. Michael Hornsby says:

    Surely, BB is right on this, though even "selfishness" and "self-indulgence" do not perhaps do full justice to the fatuousness and irresponsibility of Kember’s behaviour, which smacks more of the absolute egoism known as solipsism. This is a man so wrapped up in the idea of the overriding importance of his own saintliness that he is blind to all other reality. How else can he have imagined that the modest benefit of his activities as a Christian Peacemaker in Iraq – which don’t seem to have amounted to much more than engaging Iraqis in friendly conversation (in which case he might have been better employed talking to disaffected Muslims in the UK) – could possibly outweigh the risks to himself and his family and the many others who would be called on to rescue him if he got into trouble? Speaking for myself, I would have been inclined to have taken Kember at his word and, as he requested, made no attempt to rescue him by force. The parallel with the man on a window-ledge threatening suicide does not seem to me quite exact. It is reasonable to assume that a would-be suicide is in a mentally disturbed state and, even though expressing a wish to die at the time, might in retrospect be grateful for a reprieve and a chance for second thoughts. That does not apply to Kember whose behaviour, though bizarre by any rational judgement, seems to have been fully consistent with his normal state of mind. That said, I accept that, in the real world, leaving Kember to his fate was not an option, not least because he was kidnapped along with several others and it would hardly have been possible to have rescued them and left K behind. What can be said is that, in acting as it did, the British state displayed a humanity and morality quite alien to Kember’s self-absorbed piety.

  5. Tim Weakley says:

    Yes, Kember makes me think of the foolish people who attempt climbs beyond their skill or try to reach the North Pole solo on skis or row across the Atlantic, and have to be rescued at considerable expense and sometimes at the risk of the rescuers’ lives.
    On a more frivolous note: why was it the stuff of headlines that Mrs K. was overjoyed that her husband was coming home safe and sound?  Was the great warmhearted British public expecting her to say she wished the kidnappers had kept him a lot longer and snipped a few bits off?  What a pity that the next-of-kin in that sort of situation, when asked how they feel, don’t tell the reporters that they and their readers and viewers can bloody well use their imagination, if any.  Or perhaps they do?

  6. Aidan says:

    Brian, I really don’t think your argument that UK forces rescued Norman Kember because of ‘a general moral obligation to save life wherever possible’ is correct. There are dozens of Iraqis being kidnapped every day, and UK forces are making little or no attempt to save them. Personally I would say there is a stronger moral case for attempting to rescue them than Norman Kember, who ended up in that situation because of risks that he deliberately and recklessly took, whereas the Iraqis have no escape from the danger.
    The main reasons that they don’t get millions spent on rescuing them, are probably that it undermines the government line about progress to have a British hostage constantly getting in the news, which makes it a political and strategic objective to recover him, and also because of some bizarre tribal affiliation that means the life of a UK citizen is worth far more than that of a foreigner in terms of UK public interest.
    You might argue that the government has a greater moral obligation to protect its own citizens than those of other nations, but in the case of Iraq, the UK has placed itself in whatever the national equivalent of ‘in loco parentis’ is.

    Brian comments:  Thanks.  My guess is that the British forces in Iraq, and indeed the British government, would reply to your comments by making three points (all in my view valid):  (1)  As you correctly expect us to say, it’s an obvious fact that (in your own words) "the government has a greater moral [and legal, incidentally] obligation to protect its own citizens than those of other nations", and that primary duty can’t be negated by the existence of other secondary obligations as well;  (2)  You are wrong to say that UK forces are making "little or no attempt to save" Iraqi or other countries’ victims, although the increasingly effective and increasingly well trained [by the coalition forces] Iraqi security forces obviously have the primary responsibility for trying to save Iraqis, whose lives are vulnerable to many other threats besides kidnapping and hostage-taking;  and (3) There is no question of ‘either–or’:  our forces do their best to save all whose lives are threatened, subject always to availability of resources.  It’s simply a question of priorities, like most such issues.  And incidentally two Canadians were rescued along with Mr Kember, and the rescuers included several other nationalities besides the British.