The refusal to talk to hostage-takers has sucked the U.S. and U.K. into war

Jonathan Littell writes: A few months ago, the New York Times published a lengthy piece of investigative journalism detailing different countries’ policies on paying ransoms for journalists, aid workers or ordinary citizens taken hostage throughout the world, in particular by Islamist militant groups. The article pressed the case for the US and British policy of never – ever – negotiating for hostages, while presenting the covert European policy of paying ransoms as perverse, self-defeating and possibly even criminal. Its headline made this conclusion clear: “By paying ransoms, Europe bankrolls Qaeda terror.”

The article was, of course, researched and written before James Foley, and after him Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning and Peter Kassig – four other US and British citizens their governments refused to negotiate for – had their heads sawn off in front of a video camera by a masked goon claiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (Isis), thereby provoking the US to lead a major military intervention against the group.

France and several other countries who did negotiate on behalf of their hostages, and obtained their safe return home, have now also joined the coalition against Isis. These countries obviously believe, unlike the US and the UK, that they have a moral duty to protect their citizens, and that this principle on occasion can lead to unpleasant compromises (it might be added that Israel, a country no one would even remotely consider weak or soft on terrorism, adheres to a similar principle). However, what might be called their hostage “non-policy” (in most cases, paying ransoms and then denying it) has made it impossible for them to debate the matter constructively. While I would never advocate the systematic paying of ransoms, I feel it might be time to bring some nuance to the discussion: things are not simply black and white. [Continue reading…]

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