On ransom and the ethics of purchasing hostages

Every time a firm or government pays a kidnapper, it increases the odds more hostages will be taken in the future

Masked gunmen guard three Romanian journalists following their kidnap by an unknown group in Iraq April 1, 2005. (Reuters photo)

Masked gunmen guard three Romanian journalists following their kidnap by an unknown group in Iraq April 1, 2005. The journalists were later released. (Reuters photo)

My greatest fear is being kidnapped. It began in 2004 when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi dressed Nicholas Berg in an orange jumpsuit and then cut off his head. The video of Berg’s last bloody, screaming moments stuck in my consciousness like a fishhook. It still haunts me.

I am in the aid and humanitarian relief business, and spend considerable time in places where kidnapping is rife: Afghanistan, Haiti, parts of Africa, the Middle East. I’ve known eight people who have been kidnapped. Five survived, two died brutally, and one is missing and presumed dead. On every trip overseas the fear tugs at me, sometimes just enough to make me nervous, other times it pulls hard enough to stop me in my tracks.

The first time I considered buying kidnap and ransom insurance (or K&R as it is usually known) was when I was heading into Baghdad. These policies are expensive, but simple. If you are kidnapped, the provider hires a firm that specializes in negotiating and paying for your release. Their experts know who to contact and how to barter for your life. Like grocers quoting the price of apples, K&R specialists can give you detailed breakdowns on the going rate for anyone.

Your price will depend on where you are taken (Syria is more expensive than El Salvador), who has kidnapped you (religious fanatics charge higher than organized criminals), who you are (diplomats are more valuable than backpackers), and where you are from (Germans command more than Filipinos).

K&R negotiators explain that it is a business, and like any business everything depends on supply and demand. Put more explicitly, the more buyers are willing to pay, the more criminals and terrorists are willing to kidnap.

Which is why the ethics of ransoms are widely debated. Every time a firm or government pays off a kidnapper, it increases the odds that more hostages will be taken in the future. Recently Adnan R. Khan, in the pages of Maclean’s, discussed this with some eloquence.

For those of us in the field, this is a classic prisoner’s dilemma. My organization took the decision not to buy insurance, in spite of the fact that we often work in what is euphemistically called “non-permissive environments.” We reasoned our short-term security was not worth the long-term insecurity to which it would contribute.

Our rationale depended on the belief that others are making the same choice. Increasingly, however, it appears that is not the case, particularly for the governments of France, Germany, Italy or Spain. It is estimated that these countries and others have purchased over $165 million worth of hostages from al-Qaeda and its affiliates in recent years.

Decision makers in national capitals face what ethicists call “the Trolley Problem.” If you see a runaway trolley that is about to crash and kills its passengers, do you pull a lever to switch it to another track, even though an innocent bystander is standing in the way? In Paris and Berlin, they would rather let the passengers die later, in order to save the bystander now. So the Islamic State continues to sell them hostages like a demonic grocer trading in apples. Interestingly, only the Anglosphere (Washington, London, Canberra and Ottawa) is willing to take the more utilitarian decision to sacrifice bystanders such as James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

Not surprisingly, this policy is being decried by the families of those who were ransomed. Recently, Foley’s brother chastized the U.S. government for not having negotiated for his release. Steeped in the deep grief and horror of his brother’s death, this position is understandable, but still wrong. To stop these kidnappings we must first stop buying hostages. The (largely European) demand drives the supply.

And, yes, if the time comes you shouldn’t pay my ransom either.

Scott Gilmore is a former diplomat and the founder of Building Markets


On ransom and the ethics of purchasing hostages

  1. Well, there is one less Canadian hostage to be saved now that the Islamic fanatics have already whacked off his head. Trudeau was great at expressing outrage, but I don’t recall him naming the terrorists who killed him, or what their motivation was…..

    Now if only Trudeau and the Liberals put as much effort, or spent as much time with the media trying to save Innocent tourists from being butchered, as they spend trying to bring back terrorists to Canada.

    I guess saving muslim terrorists (hello Omar Khadr) is more important to certain voting blocks (who vote Liberal) than saving a regular Canadian citizen.

    • As ever, in your rush to condemn your favorite punching bag you miss the point of the article. The more often you bend to terrorists the more you encourage them. Pay them off, and they’ll just kidnap more. Why name them .. it just legitimizes, strengthens and publicizes their cause. As for the innocent tourists … perhaps they should take some responsibility for traveling into dangerous parts of the world. Journalists, diplomats and aid workers have a reason to be in some of these locales … a tourist does not.

      • Mellor,

        I was not in a rush to condemn. Read it again.

        I was just pointing out that Trudeau is very selective about who he tries to “save”. He and his party have spent a lot of time trying to get convicted terrorist back to Canada, but doesn’t make any effort whatsoever to save an innocent tourist.

        I suspect it is because he doesn’t want to give the Muslim’s in Canada a reason not to vote for him. Which is the same reason he can’t bring himself to say that Islam is the problem.

        • Agreed. Trying to blame Trudeau for things that occur before he was even leader of the party, much less PM, is beyond silly. Next thing you know, James will be blaming him for the Black Plague, the assassination of Julius Caesar, and the extinction of the dinosaurs….

        • Emily,

          Simply because you lack the capacity to comprehend what I am saying is not a sign of mental free fall on my part. It is a sign of mental incapacity on yours.

          That you fail to understand it is not my failing, it is yours. Now go take your meds before attempting a response.

        • Tom Sellecks moustache wrote:

          “Trying to blame Trudeau for things that occur before he was even leader of the party, much less PM, is beyond silly”

          Tom, Trudeau and his Libs didn’t have to be in power to show what their concern was. The LIberals spent more time trying to get Canadian citizens involved in terrorism back to Canada, than Trudeau spent trying to get this innocent civilian back.

          And the reason is clear: (please note the date)


        • James, no one understands what you are saying, you are not making any sense

          Now enough….


Sign in to comment.