Opinion
Jonathan Wiggs / The Boston Globe / Getty Images

James Foley did not die in vain

Paying off terrorists makes everyone less safe

August 22, 2014 6:00AM ET

Almost as outrageous as the savage murder of American journalist James Foley on Wednesday was the sight of a bubble-headed announcer on CNN nattering about what could be done to assure that all other Americans in foreign captivity “come home safely.”

I have news for her and others who are wringing their hands about rescuing captive journalists: Bringing kidnapped citizens home safely almost always means paying a ransom to terrorists. And that is always too high a price to pay, because once a country shells out the cash, it sets a precedent that puts its citizens abroad in permanent danger — not to mention bankrolling the terrorist groups that are surging through the Middle East and North Africa.

When an American is kidnapped abroad, his or her employer, family and friends should by all means do everything possible to help. So should their government. But that help must always stop short of paying ransom.

According to The New York Times, Foley’s kidnappers demanded ransom and were rejected. If that did happen, whoever made the terribly difficult decision not to pay deserves more than congratulations. He or she or they deserve thanks from all Americans who travel in the Middle East and North Africa, especially from all journalists who work there — including me.

If Foley had been freed and were home today, it would be reasonable to assume that a ransom was paid. That would make me afraid to pursue some of my reporting in the Middle East. I’d feel that whoever paid that ransom had essentially painted a target on my back.

Now I can at least hope that in some desert hideout, terrorist organizations are calculating that it doesn’t pay to kidnap Americans because Americans won’t pay ransom.

Europeans in the region aren’t so lucky. 

Complicit enemies

Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times recently documented the controversial practice of European governments’ paying terrorists to ransom their kidnapped citizens. Her brilliant exposé showed that European governments — including Spain, France, Switzerland and Austria — have paid at least $125 million in ransom to Al-Qaeda or its affiliates since 2008, with $66 million of it dispensed just last year. These governments finance the explosion of terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa as they weep crocodile tears about its effects.

Terrorists have hit upon this scheme because it preys on a weakness of Western culture. We are so fixated on human life that we value a single life saved now over hundreds or thousands at some point in the future. That single person has a face, like James Foley. The many who will be killed by weapons purchased with ransom money are distant, diffuse and faceless. They seem almost nonexistent. 

If no one had paid a cent to Al-Qaeda or its affiliates to ransom prisoners over the last decade, Foley would not have been taken.

We will see gruesome pictures of their bodies after some future atrocity.

There is also a cynically political aspect to this deadly game. National leaders bask in praise when they extract their citizens from the clutch of terrorist gangs. People don’t usually pause to ask what price was paid or to confront the certainty that paying ransom to these gangs will produce more kidnappings in the future.

This makes it especially revolting to see pundits and political enemies criticizing President Barack Obama  for not doing more to secure Foley’s release. He did exactly what he should have done. He mobilized diplomatic resources, carried out a prudent commando operation and, when those efforts failed, refused ransom demands. Had he done more — had he paid ransom — he would have committed a high crime that would deserve not just criticism but impeachment.

Right signals

The CNN news reader who wished to bring Americans “home safely” also wondered about the “optics” that might result from Obama’s decision to resume his summer vacation after making his statement deploring the Foley murder. In fact, that sent precisely the right signal. If a gang of crazed thugs roaming a faraway desert can throw the U.S. government into upheaval and disrupt the president’s life, they will take that as an unimaginable victory and a spur for further outrages. By returning to the golf course, he sends a better message: We are a great nation that does not tremble before the likes of the Islamic State.

For nations as well as for individuals, life is not shaped by what happens to you but by how you react to what happens to you. A decade ago, the United States allowed a gang of a few hundred criminals based in Afghanistan to lure it into devastating wars that cost tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. The security of the United States suffered infinitely more from those wars than it did from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Emotion and shortsightedness led President George W. Bush to hand Osama bin Laden a victory beyond his wildest dreams.

If Obama had been able to welcome Foley home this week instead of having to announce his death, he would have gained a few points in the polls. Those who would cheer most lustily, however, would be terrorists who could lick their chops while planning the next kidnapping of an American. 

To be heartbroken over the savagery being perpetrated by fundamentalist militias in the Middle East and North Africa is fully justified. To weep for Foley and his family is equally so. But it is contradictory to deplore terrorism and be angry that no ransom was paid for Foley. He died, tragically, to save the lives of those who might otherwise be future victims. After I visit the Middle East again next spring and come home safely, I will say quiet words of respect for his sacrifice and gratitude to whoever decided not to ransom him.

Let them kill me

Correspondents who have worked in war zones naturally imagine the possibility of their own kidnapping. I have. In my fantasies, I am brave enough to say to the camera, “Don’t pay. Let them kill me.” I hope never to know whether I would truly be that courageous. But one thing is almost certain: If no one had paid a cent to Al-Qaeda or its affiliates to ransom prisoners over the last decade, Foley would not have been taken.

The terrorists who executed Foley said they were taking revenge for the recent U.S. bombing of Iraq. To believe this would be to give them far too much credit. The kidnapping and ransom business, despite appearances, has little to do with politics. It is the way terrorist gangs raise huge amounts of money so they can overrun countries such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Mali, Afghanistan and Pakistan. If their ultimate goal is to destroy all that civilization values, financing them in any way is a mortal geopolitical sin.

Stephen Kinzer is a former New York Times foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. He is the author of “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq” and “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War.” He is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, where he teaches international relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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