Paying Ransom

Although I’m writing this article in the context of terrorist kidnappings, it should be noted that the principles discussed apply to any form of kidnapping.

The beheading of freelance journalist James Foley has forced a new debate between the longtime US and British refusal to negotiate with terrorists, and Europe and the Persian Gulf’s increasing willingness to pay ransoms in a desperate attempt to free citizens.

The case:

The dilemma: How to save the lives of captives without financing terror groups and encouraging more kidnappings.

Here’s the misunderstanding:

By paying ransoms, governments in the Mideast and Europe have become some of the biggest financiers of terror groups. By refusing to do likewise, the US and Britain are in the thankless position of putting their own citizens at a disadvantage.

The utilitarian side of this is that the ransoms do two things: they reward the terrorists for their labor—ransoms are nothing more than wages for work done—and ransoms fund terrorists’ future activities, from additional kidnappings as a continued source of funding to additional acts of outright terror.

As State’s Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf has indicated, ISIS already has collected millions of dollars in ransoms this year alone. That funds far more than additional kidnappings (although the ROI on kidnappings certainly has been attractive in its own right), it pays for a lot of terrorism, and not only for ISIS but for their clients. Those millions of dollars, also, is money with which to buy nuclear weapons from Iran and/or northern Korea.

Here’s Clinton Van Zandt, the FBI’s former chief hostage negotiator:

…government-paid ransoms help create “a growing cottage industry in kidnap ransoms.”

“You may get that person back that time, but what you’ve done is put a price tag on the head of every American overseas. And you’ve advertised that we pay to get Americans back.”

The moral side of paying ransom is quite simply stated: those who pay put the one they think they’re rescuing at risk of further kidnappings, both from the original kidnappers and from others who are looking for funding. Worse than that, those who pay the ransom are extending that risk to complete strangers. By making kidnapping a profitable enterprise, those payers make everyone a potentially profitable target for the project.

Paying the ransom also makes the payer, morally if not legally, an accessory to the crime: it’s tantamount to aiding and abetting; in the case of terrorists, it’s the moral equivalent of giving aid and succor to the enemy in time of war.

Clearly, then, the ones who put others at disadvantage are those who pay the “kidnappers” for their labors. And these also put their own citizens at greater risk by demonstrating empirically the returns to be had from the labor.

On the other hand, there is a morally, as well as politically and fiscally, sound alternative: to attempt rescue of hostages. That was how the US freed hostages in Colombia in 2008, for example, and Israel rescued hostages in Entebbe in 1976. That such efforts aren’t universally successful is demonstrated by the American attempt with Foley, the Son Tay raid in 1970, and the raid into Iran in 1980. However, it’s entirely too likely (although not certain) that the kidnapped victims will be killed, anyway. Such rescue attempts represent the only legitimate means, and they don’t pay the terrorists for their kidnapping labors.

This is, to be sure, a tough decision to make, wrought with emotion, but for all that, it’s the only right answer. We cannot betray the victims or their honor by attempting to purchase a sometime, ephemeral release.


Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods….

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