How long is 10 weeks? How long is 65 days? How long is 1,560 hours? For Jill Carroll, the American journalist who was kidnapped in Iraq on Jan. 7, the passage of time must be excruciating.
What can her life have been like? What is it like today? Who is holding her? Where is she being held? How are they treating her? Is she witness to the brutalization of other captives? Does she live in a stupor of exhausted fear? Or are her senses alive with perception, alert to every moment's possibility for ill or good? Has anyone been kind to her? Do her captors argue with one another about what to do now? Is she alive, despite earlier threats, because someone took her side?
After her capture, a beautiful photograph was published, showing her irresistible smile. Her head was covered, a hint of her respectful attitude. That picture was an emblem of her goodness. Then, on Jan. 31, another photograph appeared, taken from a videotape broadcast on Al-Jazeera. In this image, which is before me as I write, Carroll looks simply terrified, and her eyes are full of questions. No response suggests itself, except other questions.
Does Carroll know what has been happening in Iraq since her capture? How the devils of religious and sectarian violence have been loosed? Does she know that security forces she might have looked to for rescue have been turning into rampaging death squads? Does she know of the regional escalations, with Iran and the Palestinian territories more in the grip of nihilist Islamist fervor than ever? What would she make of the Muslim uproar at Danish cartoons? Was her punishment therefore increased for being a Western journalist?
Last week, the Christian Science Monitor launched a media campaign in Iraq, pressing for her release. Is it held against her that the newspaper has the word ''Christian" in its name? Does the word ''science" offend as well?
Will those holding Carroll mark the third anniversary of the war's beginning as it falls this week? In these three years, an average of two American soldiers have been killed in Iraq each day; an average of 15 have been wounded. By that calculus, staying with averages, 130 GIs have died since Carroll was taken prisoner; almost 1,000 have been wounded. What is the passage of time for them?
As savage civil war shows signs of closing in on US forces, have American soldiers been taken hostage, in effect, by the failed policies of their own government? What of the ''enemy combatants" being held by our side? Do the dreads of the imprisoned transcend identity, politics, guilt or innocence?
And what of gender? Yet again the propensity for mad violence shows itself as overwhelmingly male. As friends help me to ask, has Carroll's being a woman put her in a position of special vulnerability? Her captors began by demanding the release of Iraqi women being held by the ''coalition." What of that? Have women been released? Why were they being held? Is the prudential principle of never dealing with kidnappers (lest they be encouraged in their kidnapping) an absolute? Can't a way be found to free other women for the sake of this one?
The brutality of Jill Carroll's captors goes without saying. The apparent indifference to her fate across an otherwise enflamed Muslim world is mystifying. It seems impossible to exaggerate the gravity of her jeopardy. But is there really nothing her fellow citizens can do but worry and plead? What exactly is the US government doing for her? Where is the pressure from Congress? What if constituents of every politician in Washington demanded to know what is being done to obtain Jill Carroll's release? The war in Iraq threatens to spin out of control. Iran has been invited to do its worst, and is responding accordingly. Meanwhile, the fearsome gulf between politicized Muslims and the West, including a newly politicized Christianity, grows ever larger. We the American people have rarely felt so powerless. But today, what if we put a single human face on these vast problems? This column became a litany of questions, but finally there are only two questions: How would we be organizing our lives on her behalf if Jill Carroll were our sister and our daughter? But isn't that is exactly who she is?