The video of a Syrian captor beheading American freelance journalist James Foley "has done more damage than any ransom ever could," former Iranian hostage Sarah Shourd warned on CNN recently. Foley's parents have been vocal about their frustration in knowing that their son remained a hostage as France and other European countries paid a reported average of $3 million-plus to free their citizens. The family wants to establish an organization to provide information to other families, presumably to get around a no-ransom policy.
The subsequent beheadings of American journalist Steven J. Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines threaten to put pressure on the United States and United Kingdom to ditch their policy of not paying ransom for hostages. I hope that doesn't happen. The Obama administration is right to maintain a no-ransom policy, despite its shortcomings.
"Our government was very clear that no ransom was going to be paid," Foley's mother, Diane, told The New York Times. "It was horrible -- and continues to be horrible." I cannot imagine what the Foleys had to endure -- seven months of anguish over not being able to help their son, punctuated with horror.
Washington reportedly warned the Foleys that they could face prosecution if they paid a ransom to free their son -- a threat that later was withdrawn. Worse, the Foleys say they were advised to stall after captors asked for more than $130 million in ransom for their son. Foley said it was obvious that her son's captors "wanted to engage with the government." She added: "I don't understand how it is that we were not willing to engage at some level. This made them more and more angry." The Islamic State angrier? How could she tell?
At a Senate hearing Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry registered frustration over the Foleys' anger at the government. No doubt there are things the State Department could have done better, he said, and Foggy Bottom will try harder in the future. OK, but the no-ransom policy should stand.
There's no question that the policy is imperfect. As Shourd noted, the U.S. government didn't stop Oman's government when it paid $1 million "bail" money to Iran to free two male hikers with whom she had been detained. Also, the Obama administration negotiated a deal with the Taliban to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity. The price was too high: the release of five Guantanamo Bay detainees.
"Everybody is against the payment of ransom in principle" -- until a loved one is taken hostage, said Mike Ackerman, CEO of a security company that specializes in recovering kidnap victims. "I think it's an impossible decision. There's an unquestionable interest on the part of any civilized community in not paying a ransom, and I think there's an unquestionable interest of any civilized society in trying to get people back and not get them killed."
He's right, but the first interest also prevents more kidnappings. As Gen. John R. Allen told The New York Times, "what is hard to prove is how many Americans have not been kidnapped as a result of the fact that the enemy knows they will not get a penny from us."