The Price of Hostages

Of course, our sages were aware that ransoming prisoners can also lead to other dangers. If a community is too quick to pay ransom, then it risks incentivizing kidnappers. One therefore needs to calculate the dangers of overpaying. But this stipulation does not negate the ethos, only contextualizes it.  NYTimes

I was surprised to find this in the New York Times.

A history of Israel’s Negotiations with Hostage Takers

“Does not negate the ethos” is a piece of rogue logic that doesn’t follow anything previously stated.  In fact, it directly negates the ethos: your action (paying hostage-takers) may cause other people to be taken hostage and  cause other families to experience the grief you experienced.   The writer, Mikhael Manekin, is telling you: I can make the illogical logical with my magic word “contextualize”.

What does this mean:  “Contextualizes it”?  Other than, let’s introduce some really fuzzy logic here– the context is my emotions.  I feel devastatingly awful for the families of hostages so lets compel the government to do everything it can to get them back, even if the success of the hostage-taking leads to more hostages.

That is what the writer has admitted in the article.  “It risks incentivizing kidnappers” stated as if, oh well, it might not happen.  It absolutely happens.  She gives us the glories of compassion and capitulation: pay them, pay them, pay them!

Paying the kidnappers provides one with cheap virtue.  You congratulate yourself for your act of kindness and disregard the consequences for others.

In 2011, it [Israel] released more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, a soldier who was kidnapped in 2006 by Hamas.

Wow.  And does anyone publicly ask whether any of those 1,000 prisoners were involved in the slaughter in Israel last weekend, or in the hostage-taking?  Would anyone be surprised if they were?  [In fact, the current leader of Hamas was one of the 1,000!]

The PBS News Hour, which I normally am very fond of, did a series a while ago in which Amna Nawaz interviewed families of hostages held in Iran or Russia.  The stories were given extraordinary length for a situation that only involves one person each, and I think Amna had tears in her eyes.  The story screamed at the viewer:  do something!  Anything!  [This continued for several episodes with further interviews with relatives of hostages, again, with extraordinary length for a national news story.]

[Update, yesterday (2023-11-21), Amna again interviewed a pair of American women whose children or grand-children are being held as hostages.  Again, the interview was granted a large chunk of national news time and space.  How many viewers consider the fact that there are dozens of other stories, equally compelling, involving as much or more suffering, that are selectively not covered most media outlets because the Israel story is, for the moment, the world’s rage.

The one question she did not ask: is it possible that paying the ransom of a prisoner held previously led to your loved one being held for ransom?

I thought I had heard once that Israel’s stated policy was to never pay ransoms.  Obviously, either my memory is mistaken or their policy has changed.  I thought then, as I think now, that that policy was the right one, as heart-breaking as it may seem to the families of hostages.   You won’t share my view unless reporters like Amna Nawaz ask the question: did negotiating with the last hostage-takers cause this hostage-taking?  Are your children (or husband or father etc.) at risk because the tears of the last families of the hostages persuaded the government to give in and negotiate even though it was bad policy to do so.  For obvious reasons.

I suspect it may have changed for the same wrong reason the stated policy of the U.S. (also to not pay ransoms) is frequently ignored: families of the hostages take to the TV screens, sometimes complaining bitterly that the President won’t meet with them, soaking up the tears of compassionate viewers and the outrage: why don’t they do something?  It’s bullying, really.   I resent them.  I resent them because they don’t seem to care that the government action they want will endanger the lives of others.  They implicitly insist that others can suffer as long as their loved ones are saved.  But that doesn’t sound nice, does it?  That’s why reporters like Amna Nawaz don’t bring it.

No family is going to go on TV and complain about the family of a former hostage forcing the government to negotiate that ransom thereby incentivizing the kidnappers who hold their son or daughter or husband.

I know some people will think I’m heartless.  Heartless to who?  The current victim or the next one?  I believe those who readily pay ransoms are the heartless ones: they know– they surely know– that they have just confirmed to the world the value of taking hostages.  They have insisted on rewarding a criminal.  They threaten to smear any politician who resists their entreaties as callous, heartless, and monstrous,  and politicians know that the general public will buy it.  Why don’t they pay the ransom this one time?  How can they be so cruel?  Even the reporter is crying.

I believe the U.S. and Canada should make it clear –as they generally do– to people who visit Iran and Russia and other nations that are not ruled by law that they risk being taken hostage, arbitrarily imprisoned, or kidnapped, and that the government– having warned them not to go there– will not pay any ransom for their release.

Brittney Yevette Griner chose to play for a professional basketball team in Russian and was caught bringing hash oil into the country in February, 2022.  She was sentenced to 9 years labor in one of Russia’s brutal prisons.  Yes, that is absolutely awful, and Russia has a repugnant lawless regime.  That’s why you don’t go there if you have any sense.  That’s why you don’t put your government and families in a terrible position in the selfish pursuit of your own interests.

And that’s why, as heartless as it seems, the U.S. should have refused to offer anything in exchange for her release.

And if you are an American in Russia right now– are you kidding me?

But of course they did pay the ransom.

“On December 8, Griner was released in a prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.”  (Wiki)  

Bout was charged and convicted of supplying weapons to terrorists that could or would be used against American soldiers.  After release, he returned to Russia and entered politics.

The people who were or will be victimized by Viktor Bout will remain anonymous, faceless, invisible.  They won’t be on PBS News Hour pleading for the lives of their loved ones who died in a conflagration somewhere fueled by weapons sold to insurgents or terrorists by Viktor Bout.  It’s not as personal as Brittney’s mom pleading with President Biden on TV.  And Amna Nawaz won’t be tearing up as she reports on the deaths of civilians in a terrorist attack that was enabled by Viktor Bout.

For any individual case, a non-negotiation policy is heart-breaking.  In the long-term, if  potential hostage-takers know that the government they wish to blackmail has a strictly-observed policy of not negotiating, it seems reasonable to believe that they would be less likely to take a hostage.  Even better, follow your own government’s advice and don’t go there.

The next time America captures, tries, and convicts a Russian criminal, if I were an America, I would stay as far away from Russia as possible.

Because Russia knows that a TV interview with the family of a hostage will be enough to push the government into bad policy.





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