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Hostage raid in Yemen highlights history of resisting ransom

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 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.