In­cen­tiviz­ing hostage- tak­ers

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

In an­nounc­ing a new pro­gram to co­or­di­nate ef­forts to re­cover Amer­i­cans held by for­eign ter­ror­ists, Pres­i­dent Obama on Wed­nes­day as­sured their fam­i­lies that “we will stand by you” and share in­for­ma­tion. He also promised that fam­i­lies who pay ran­som to hostage- tak­ers wouldn’t be pros­e­cuted by the gov­ern­ment un­der laws against pro­vid­ing ma­te­rial sup­port for ter­ror­ism.

Those as­pects of the new pol­icy are laud­able. More prob­lem­atic is Obama’s prom­ise that the gov­ern­ment would make it eas­ier for fam­i­lies to com­mu­ni­cate ( and by im­pli­ca­tion ne­go­ti­ate) with hostage- tak­ers. That part of the pol­icy is in ten­sion with his re­it­er­a­tion of the long- stand­ing — though in­con­sis­tently ap­plied — U. S. pol­icy of re­fus­ing to make con­ces­sions to ter­ror­ists. If the gov­ern­ment makes it eas­ier for fam­i­lies to pay ran­som, that in­evitably will make the tak­ing of hostages more at­trac­tive.

We share the pres­i­dent’s sym­pa­thy for the fam­i­lies who be­lieved their gov­ern­ment was in­dif­fer­ent or un­help­ful when they tried to win the re­lease of their loved ones. Few among us, faced with the re­al­ity of a son or daugh­ter taken pris­oner and fac­ing ex­e­cu­tion, wouldn’t move heaven and earth to ob­tain their re­lease — and we would re­sent ob­sta­cles placed in our way by our own gov­ern­ment. It’s im­pos­si­ble not to be moved, for ex­am­ple, by the plight of the fam­ily of James Fo­ley, the U. S. jour­nal­ist be­headed by Is­lamic State last sum­mer. The idea of pros­e­cut­ing fam­i­lies like the Fo­leys is re­pug­nant.

But re­frain­ing from pros­e­cu­tion is dif­fer­ent from cre­at­ing con­di­tions in which fam­i­lies will be en­cour­aged to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity of pay­ing ran­som.

The White House said that, un­der its new pol­icy, the gov­ern­ment “may as­sist pri­vate ef­forts to com­mu­ni­cate with hostage- tak­ers to se­cure the safe re­cov­ery of a hostage.” That sounds like an in­vi­ta­tion to start bar­gain­ing. And it can’t be rec­on­ciled with the ra­tio­nale Obama of­fered for the re­fusal of the gov­ern­ment it­self to make pay­ments: that it “risks en­dan­ger­ing more Amer­i­cans and fund­ing the very ter­ror­ism that we’re try­ing to stop.” By one es­ti­mate, Is­lamic State raised $ 20 mil­lion in ran­som for hostages in 2014.

We sup­port sev­eral as­pects of the pol­icy, in­clud­ing the cre­ation of an in­ter­a­gency “Hostage Re­cov­ery Fu­sion Cell” to co­or­di­nate re­cov­ery ef­forts and more en­gage­ment with fam­i­lies. But taken as a whole, the new pol­icy will make it eas­ier for fam­i­lies to act on their own to pur­chase their loved ones’ free­dom.

Painful as its con­se­quences may be, the gov­ern­ment’s long- stand­ing no- ran­som pol­icy still makes sense. Obama should not un­der­mine it in the name of sol­i­dar­ity with hostages and their fam­i­lies.

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