Why ransom is wrong

The United States government does not allow its citizens to negotiate with terrorists who have kidnapped loved ones. Dana Milbank in this morning’s Washington Post criticizes this policy, saying:

…but the hard-line stance clearly hasn’t stopped terrorists from seizing Americans; it means only that these Americans are more likely to die.

This is sloppy thinking, on several grounds.

Extremist groups in the Middle East and worldwide kidnap Americans in far smaller numbers than might be expected, given the country’s prominence in leading efforts against them. There is no reason I know of to imagine that this is anything but the result of the policy against paying ransom. The impact is felt in two ways:

  • Americans aware of the policy are more careful about exposing themselves to risk than Europeans and others whose governments do pay ransom.
  • Kidnappers know that their likelihood of turning a profit on an American is significantly less than their likelihood of turning a profit on a kidnapped Italian, so they prefer to kidnap Italians.

It may be true that once kidnapped an American is more likely to be killed, but that is a small part of story. It is far more important that Americans are less likely to be kidnapped. That only four of the 23 Islamic State Western captives have been Americans is remarkable. US citizens are being more careful than others and will provide their would-be kidnappers with less benefit.

Milbank makes other sloppy errors as well. He makes no distinction between kidnapped official Americans and private citizens. The cases of negotiated exchanges he refers to all involve official Americans, sent into danger by their government. There is good reason for the US government to treat their cases differently from those of private citizens, who take risks without informing the US government and often against its explicit advice.

I am one of those who has repeatedly ignored US government warnings to travel in conflict zones. I take what precautions seem judicious, consulting widely with people who have traveled recently to the prohibited destination. I also comply with the requirements of whatever organization I am working for. I do this with care, as I have no expectation that my government will ante up or allow my family to do so. If I did have such an expectation, I might be more inclined to take more risks. That is not something you as a tax payer should want me to do.

I hasten to add that it would be difficult, even impossible, for the US government to enforce with criminal penalties its restrictions on families paying ransom. Nor do I know of a case in which they have tried to do so. Some families surely do make an effort to negotiate. But there are precious few cases in which they succeed. Milbank cites only one.

The issue of negotiation is my view distinct from the issue of ransom. The fact is that the US government does talk, when it can do so safely and out of the public eye, with kidnappers. I see no harm in that, so long as it does not convey legitimacy, finances or other benefits to criminal activity. The reason ransom is wrong is that it provides a benefit that incentivizes further kidnapping.

Even discussion of changing the “no ransom” policy is in my view a slippery slope, one that could slide quickly into heightened risks for Americans. We need to be clear and unequivocal about the official policy, even if there are families that manage to circumvent it, talk with the kidnappers, and attempt to pay ransom. Precious few are likely to succeed.


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