photo by Flickr user JoshBerglund19
The Obama administration effectively announced last week that we should expect kidnappers to target more Americans soon.
Of course, the White House didn’t put the announcement in those terms. Instead, the message was couched in terms of a “clarification” of U.S. policy on paying ransoms. Namely, that family members and loved ones are not barred from doing so.
The U.S. government has long held a policy of not negotiating with hostage takers, whether pirates, terrorists or hostile governments. This stance has, for many years, set us (and the United Kingdom) apart from many other affluent nations. It has also, crucially, discouraged profit-seeking kidnappers from purposely targeting Americans. In contrast, European countries have not only kept kidnapping profitable, but have funneled large sums of money directly into the pockets of terrorist groups in order to retrieve their citizens.
Yet, as I wrote earlier this year, emotional pleas and pressure have pushed President Obama into ceding one of two remaining strongholds in his shaky foreign policy approach. This pressure spiked after the killing of journalist James Foley. Foley’s parents told journalists that they had been threatened with prosecution if they negotiated with their son’s captors, and criticized the government for sending mixed messages about what they could and could not legally do during their son’s captivity.
Instead of holding firm to a position that ultimately saves American lives, even if at sometimes tragic individual cost, the administration wavered. Now the apologies and discussion following the Foleys’ public criticism have coalesced into a concrete - and damaging - policy.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest insisted that the government’s position on ransoms has not fundamentally changed. “The president does continue to believe it’s important for the United States of America to adhere closely to a no-concessions policy,” he said last week. But, at the same time, the administration is expected to set up a central office within the FBI to coordinate efforts across government agencies relating to American hostages and their families. In other words, to coordinate concessions through private parties that the government continues to insist that it would never itself make. To a hostage taker, that is a distinction without a difference.
Individual Americans don’t have pockets as deep as the government’s, of course, but Americans are still relatively wealthy by global standards - and some are very wealthy, by any standards. It is far from inconceivable that individual Americans might be targeted based on their family’s assumed ability to pay for them.
The pain individual parents and family members must endure at a kidnapping is impossible to imagine, and no one can begrudge loved ones the desire to take every possible step to secure a captive’s freedom. But what seems like a sympathetic gesture to these families from the White House is, in fact, a way to all but ensure more Americans will join their ranks. When kidnapping is dangerous and unlikely to secure the object demanded (whether money, the release of prisoners, or anything else), the practice will die out.
On the other hand, every time a government sends the message that kidnappers have a better chance of getting what they want, it creates an incentive to take more hostages and ask for larger ransoms. Concessions today are the seeds that will yield more kidnapping of Americans for years to come.