Anyone who does not share the ideology of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is likely to agree that it is wrong for the group’s adherents to behead some of those they have held hostage. Much more controversial, however, are the secret decisions by European governments to pay such groups ransoms for the release of their nationals.
Although the Islamic State’s hostages have come from several countries, so far it has beheaded only those from the United States and the United Kingdom. The only European hostage reported to have been executed directly by the Islamic State appears to have been a Russian, Sergey Gorbunov, but little is known about him. No friend or relative has come forward, and no video of his death has been released. Russian officials have publicly doubted that he was a Russian citizen.
On the other hand, the Islamic State has released 15 hostages, including citizens of Italy, France, Switzerland, Denmark, and Spain.
Rukmini Callimachi, reporting for the New York Times, has explained the difference in treatment. The U.S. and U.K. governments have a long-standing policy of refusing to pay ransoms to terrorist organizations. Moreover, when Michael Foley, brother of James Foley, one of the hostages, received a ransom demand, the FBI warned him that under U.S. law, to pay money to terrorists is a crime. Foley was later executed.
By contrast, for more than a decade several European governments have been willing to pay terrorists millions of euros for the release of their captive citizens, or have facilitated the payment of ransoms by relatives and friends of hostages. This is notwithstanding the United Nations Security Council’s unanimous adoption in January of a resolution opposing payment of such ransoms, and a similar declaration at last year’s Group of 8 summit — which was signed by some of the governments that have continued to pay.
France has, according to Callimachi, paid more ransom money than any other country — a total of $58 million since 2008, including a single payment of $40 million in 2013 for four French citizens captured in Mali. But French policy may be changing.
After France participated in airstrikes against the Islamic State in September 2014, an Algerian jihadist group captured Hervé Gourdel, a French tourist, and threatened to execute him unless France renounced its participation in the operations. This time France stood firm, with Prime Minister Manuel Valls saying that to retreat one inch would be to hand victory to the militants. Gourdel was beheaded.
The pressure on governments to pay ransoms, or at least facilitate the payment of ransoms by families desperate to save their loved ones’ lives, is understandable. It is an application of the so-called “Rule of Rescue”: Our perceived duty to spend almost any amount to save an identifiable victim, such as a trapped miner, an injured mountain climber, or an extremely premature baby. We are far less willing to invest in saving lives when the victims cannot be identified in advance, even when the number of lives saved would be higher — for example, by providing better road safety or education in preventive health measures.
The Rule of Rescue should be understood as a rule about human psychology, not about morality.
Applying it can seem justifiable if we put ourselves in the position of a captive, or imagine that our child, parent or spouse has been captured by terrorists who make a credible offer to release our loved one for a ransom.
But this argument trades on our inability to put ourselves in the position of any of the larger number of people killed by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. They have become victims only because the estimated $125 million in ransom money paid to such groups over the past six years has enabled them to arm more militants to carry out lethal attacks. We ought to use our resources to save the most lives; and, overall, paying ransoms is likely to lead to more lives being lost.
Moreover, the additional military strength that terrorists gain from ransom revenue is not the only harm caused by paying ransoms. Ransoming one Western hostage creates an incentive for militants to capture another. Graeme Wood, a journalist who spent four years working in the Middle East, notes that journalists in dangerous areas were always at risk of being kidnapped or killed for ideological reasons; but it does not help that a Western journalist could be worth millions of dollars, a sum he calls “universally motivating.”
Gen. John Allen, a former U.S. commander in Afghanistan and now President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State, argues that we cannot know how many Americans have not been kidnapped because the group knows that it will not receive ransoms for them. He points out that “the fact that there are Americans in the region who were never taken because [the Islamic State and its allies] knew there was no advantage to doing so needs to be factored in.”
Governments that pay ransoms are saving the lives of some of their citizens, but putting the remainder of their citizens — and others — at greater risk. The refusal to pay ransoms to terrorists can seem callous, but in truth it is the only ethical policy. Every government should adhere to it.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and a laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Practical Ethics, Rethinking Life and Death, and The Life You Can Save. @ 2014 Project Syndicate