Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ransom is un-American, but wasn't always

Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello
     When I began writing this, I was hoping to contemplate the ethical, almost philosophical, arguments against paying ransom. Then I stumbled upon the struggle our Founding Father's went through, trying to decide whether to pay tribute to the Barbary pirates, or raise an navy and fight them.  If you finish this and are just dying to learn more, historian Michael Oren delivered a captivating lecture on the topic at Columbia University in 2005 that you can read online, that was the source for the quotes used below. 
     Had the Navy SEAL team been successful Saturday in rescuing photojournalist Luke Somers from al-Qaida in Yemen, Somers would no doubt be back in the States by now, on the “Today” show, recounting his ordeal.
     But the raid turned into a firefight, and Somers was murdered by his captors, along with fellow hostage Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher who, it was later discovered, was hours from being released, thanks to a $200,000 ransom to be paid by his family and his employer, a charitable group.
     And there public interest ends, with a sad shake of the head. Such raids are enormous tactical challenges, this one didn’t succeed, and too bad that the South African fellow died, with freedom in his grasp, magnifying the tragedy for his family.
     That is the natural way to feel; it’s the way that I felt, at first. But then I thought about it a bit. The United States doesn’t pay ransom for kidnapped citizens because such payments only encourage more kidnapping, and the cash funds more terrorism. European countries do cravenly pay ransoms, to their shame, funneling tens of millions of dollars to al-Qaida and groups like it.
     South Africa, like the U.S., has a policy against paying ransoms. But families and private groups do pay, ignoring the fact that it is morally wrong. You are purchasing your loved one's freedom at the expense of the suffering of many others down the line.
     Not that such a moral calculus is ever easy. When it is your son in the video, begging for his life, focusing on what is best from an international policy perspective can seem irrelevant, even cruel.
     It might help to imagine another scenario. Let's say, instead of being kidnapped, the South African was instead delivering $200,000—the amount his family was about to pay—to al-Qaida out of zeal. The SEALs intercept and shoot him first. They would be doing their job and nobody would mourn the dead courier. You could argue that whether he is a captive or not is beside the point of a clear moral directive: Don't support terrorists; oppose them at all costs.
     If you wonder why the United States, normally bending over backward when it comes to the lives of our citizens abroad, takes this hard line, remember that our country has faced this exact problem since it began.
     Longer, in fact. Our split from Britain removed the protection of the powerful Royal Navy from our merchant fleet, which was then set on by Barbary pirates—privateers operating out of North Africa. The forging of our Constitution and the uniting of the colonies was done, in part, to better face what James Madison called "the rapacious demands of pirates and barbarians."
     Then, as now, the temptation was to just pay the tribute, and for years our new country did just that, at the urgings of people like John Adams, who deemed it better to give "one Gift of two hundred Thousand Pounds" in tribute than to risk "a Million annually."
     The trouble was, once begun, payments never end, and others want in on the action. The U.S. Navy was created in March 1794 by a timid Congress (nothing changes; if you think it dithers now in the face of disaster, just look at the agonized debates Congress had while pirates were capturing American ships and parading their sailors in chains through the streets of Fez before selling them into slavery). The first U.S. naval warship was used not to fight the pirates, but to convey tribute to them. Talk about shame.
     By 1800, 20 percent of federal expenditures were payments to North African pashas, according to historian Michael Oren.
     Only Thomas Jefferson assuming the presidency in 1801 led to a change in policy. He sensed that our spirit was better suited to "raise ships and men to fight the pirates into reason than money to bribe them."
     Not that doing so was ever easy. In 1803, 15 Marines from the USS Philadelphia were ambushed and slain in Tripoli—the first U.S. servicemen to die on foreign soil—and 308 crewmen were taken prisoner after the ship foundered on a reef. (The "shores of Tripoli" line in the Marine hymn immortalizes not that military fiasco but an 1805 victory.)
     Adams said something during the debate about the pirates that bears remembering.
     "We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever"—prophetic words, though Adams underestimated the mettle of his nation by adding, "this though, I fear, is too rugged for our people to bear." But bear it we did, and do. Americans turned out to be made of stronger stuff. We value each life, true, but prefer to lose a few citizens by standing for our values than to try to save them all by living on our knees.



  1. What about Bowe Bergdahl? While it is still unproven, but widely speculated that money was exchanged, there still was the prisoner swap of 5 Gitmo terrorists for his safe return.It seems if anyone is going to be abnadoned it would be a U.S. volunteer soldier who knew the stakes going in.

  2. I really admire the family of that South African victim for refusing to blame anyone. In their shoes, I would have cursed the United States with every breath in my body.

    1. Me too. Just like I admired the family of the young man who fell to his death at Notre Dame while filming the team football practice several years ago. They also declined to pursue any legal action even though they were staring at very deep pockets.


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