It’s impossible to put a monetary value on a person’s life. We’ve heard stories about kidnappers who take hostages and demand ransom money. We’ve seen movies where the bad guys threaten the safety of the hostage unless the hero drops money off in a garbage can on the corner of some busy street. The family of the hostage usually attempts to pay, but the cops set up a sting to catch whoever goes after the money. Most times, the hostage is safe in the end and the money is retrieved.
Now imagine that this story is true. Except the bad guys are a terrorist organization and the hostage is an American on foreign soil.
What do we do then?
Because it’s an American in peril, it seems easy for us to say, “Save the hostage! Pay the ransom!”
Perhaps some perspective is needed. For years, the U.S. has refused to negotiate or pay ransoms to terrorists — even when an American is the hostage. That stance didn’t change when the Islamic State militants demanded a ransom for American journalist James Foley. The U.S. refused. The deadline for the ransom passed. Foley was beheaded on Aug. 19, 2014.
Criticism of the America’s no-ransom policy isn’t new. People, especially the families of those killed while hostages of terrorist organizations, take issue with the idea of leaving an American in enemy hands. The solution seems simple. But it’s much more complicated than just coughing up money.
Paying ransoms to a terrorist organization like ISIS carries with it some serious consequences — consequences heavy enough to show us why the U.S. made the tough, but correct, decision to refuse paying ransoms.
When a country decides to pay a ransom for hostages, there are two options for the terrorists: Take the money and free the hostage or take the money and kill the hostage. Either way, the terrorists have more money that could go toward funding future terrorist actions. Even if the hostages are released and are safe, the potential for more terrorist activity could lead to a greater loss of life. Weighing the loss of hostages’ lives against potentially thousands of lives is a difficult, yet sobering, comparison to make.
Once a country pays money for one hostage, terrorist organizations now know that the country will, under the right circumstances, agree to pay for the hostage’s release. With the number of journalists and soldiers in the terrorists’ region, it wouldn’t be hard to find another hostage and demand yet another ransom. At that point, the country has to make a decision to once again pay to release the hostage or give up that hostage’s life. How does the country decide who to pay for and who to leave in the terrorists’ hands? It’s a near impossible decision.
The Lariat Editorial Board was divided on this particular point. Could there be exceptions to the no-ransoms rule? For example, if the hostage had in-depth knowledge of the U.S. operations that could potentially kill other Americans, then it seems reasonable to pay for that hostage’s release. However, we still run into the problem of setting a dangerous precedent for paying for hostages. By a majority vote, the Editorial board decided there could not be exceptions to the rule. Having a firm stance makes the America’s position clear: We do not, will not and should not negotiate with terrorists.
The U.S. is not alone in its policy. The United Kingdom has a similar policy. Countries like France, however, have reportedly paid for hostages. This isn’t a policy that these countries tend to flaunt.
A 2014 New York Times investigation found “While European governments deny paying ransoms, … that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year.”
This is $125 million that Al Qaeda could use for terrorist operations. Many of the hostages have been released once payment was made. The U.S., however, refuses to fund terrorism.
Instead of paying ransoms, there are other options. Countries could coordinate a rescue mission. This obviously puts the hostages in danger, but they are probably in more danger with the terrorists. There is also the option of exchanging a prisoner for a prisoner. Historically, this has worked for the U.S.
Private donors could also give money to free hostages, but it’s illegal in the U.S. to fund a terrorist organization. James Foley’s mother said U.S. officials told her she could be charged with a crime if she attempted to raise money. The America’s stance on refusing to fund terrorism extends to even private donors.
The U.S. is a world leader. It cannot simply go back on generations of refusing to fund or negotiate terrorism. It seems harsh to say it’s OK to leave an American hostage overseas with hostages. But keep in mind what the U.S. could be funding by paying ransoms — the deaths of thousands of Americans.