Archive for December, 2014

It’s been widely reported that many western countries routinely pay ransoms and otherwise negotiate with terrorists for the release of their hostages.  The United States does not.  The rationale for the policy is that paying ransoms could encourage additional hostage-taking.

However the facts do seem to contradict the theory.  America’s Western European allies routinely pay ransoms, yet there is no evidence their citizens are taken more than any others.

Moreover, the theory is simply wrong.  The United States may gain a great deal by paying selected ransoms under certain conditions.  We are missing that opportunity.

A hostage has a value – be it monetary or as a propaganda tool.  Hostage takers will exploit the highest and best use of a hostage.  Freeing a hostage also has a value to the United States and to the family.  As with any transaction, sometimes both sides can gain something by doing business.  It’s not a zero sum game.

Example:  Imagine a particular American hostage has the potential to generate $100,000 dollars in propaganda value from the hostage takers’ point of view – videos, beheadings, etc.  Now also imagine that the United States government and the family stand to face a propaganda loss and loss of a life worth more than $1,000,000 to them.  A ransom paid somewhere between those two values – say $500,000 produces a good outcome for both sides.  The hostage takers receive a higher value in cash than they could have generated in propaganda videos, and the United States and the family gain $500,000 over what would have happened had they refused to negotiate.

The United States does not want to encourage hostage-taking.  However there’s plenty of incentive for terrorists, ransom or not.  If a ransom increases the value of a hostage to a terrorist by only a small amount, it may not encourage anything, but it may save a life.  The question will always be, is there more to gain for us by paying or by not paying in a particular circumstance.

Put another way, we say we place a higher value on life than the terrorists do, so why don’t we act that way?


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