Should We Pay Off the Sniper?

According to today’s news reports, the Washington, D.C.-area sniper has demanded $10 million to stop his slaughter. Should we pay him off?

The obvious answer is: Of course not. Caving to a killer’s blackmail is both foolish and morally repugnant. A payoff would reward mass murder. (If the sniper’s a terrorist, notes blogger Clayton Cramer, the cash might fund more anti-American violence.) A payoff would encourage copycat killers. A payoff would not guarantee the spree would stop. Someone who assassinates innocents is, by definition, untrustworthy. A $10 million payoff might spur him to slay again, then demand $20 million more.

And history does not favor efforts to buy off criminals, murderers, and tyrants. The appeasement of Hitler—help yourself to the Sudetenland, Mr. Hitler, and while you’re at it, have a second helping of Austria—was a disaster: Rejecting his extortion might have prevented World War II and the Holocaust. The Reagan administration’s arms-for-hostages deal got a few Americans home from Lebanon a little quicker, but it encouraged terrorists, propped up an enemy government in Iran, and helped provoke a constitutional crisis here. Countries such as Yemen and Colombia offer a particularly dismal modern lesson. In these nations, families and businesses generally pay ransoms to hostage-takers. The result: Hostage-taking has become big business.

But as an anxious resident of Sniperville, I wonder if the arguments are so absolutely clear. Should we never surrender to blackmail? The sniper has managed to shoot 13 people, killing 10 of them, yet the police still don’t seem to have a single meaningful lead. He has closed schools, destroyed Halloween, damaged the D.C. economy, and caused endless anxiety. All indications are that he can continue killing and the police can’t stop him.

Giving in to extortion is foolish, but maybe it’s less foolish when the threat is terrible and when you are fairly certain it will be carried out, as in this case. Imagine we were dealing with a Dr. Evil-style movie villain instead of the sniper. Suppose he made a persuasive threat to detonate a hidden A-bomb in Manhattan unless he was paid $10 million. Would the U.S. government pay? I bet it would. (An example from current geopolitics may be instructive here.)

As for the argument that a payoff would encourage future criminals, this may be an exceptional case. The sniper is a devilishly skilled genius who is eluding the biggest law-enforcement dragnet in memory. Regular police work is enough for everyone else. The sniper requires extraordinary treatment. Paying off one exceptional criminal would not mean that we had to pay off lots of them. So, even though it would set a bad moral precedent, it probably would not cause an epidemic of successful extortions.

The best reason for paying off the sniper is that it might catch him. There are three outcomes of a sniper payoff. Two of them are bad. The first, and most terrible, is that we pay him off and he doesn’t stop. (The demand for money may simply be a red herring, another way to show his power over us.) If he keeps killing, we will have shown our moral cowardice and not reaped any benefit. The second bad outcome is that we pay him off, he stops killing, and he disappears. We would be relieved that the killings ended, but others would be encouraged to imitate his gruesome example, and our own government would have proven its incompetence and cravenness.

The third, and to my mind most likely, outcome, is that we pay him off and that payoff nails him. If movies are any guide, arranging a safe payoff is much trickier than committing the crime. To get away with it, he would have to be as superb an electronic criminal as he is a sniper. Even if the sniper masks his identity and uses encryption and decryption to hide and move the money, he would have a difficult time eluding the cybersnoops. Ten million bucks is a better clue than anything Chief Moose has now.

Paying off the sniper and using his greed to catch him would be a triple victory. It would stop the killing spree. It would punish the killer. And it would deter future extortionists. If the cops can show that it’s impossible to get away with blackmail, there will be less of it.

This third possibility does not outweigh the moral hazard of paying off criminals. Still, I’m sure Chief Moose and FBI Director Robert Mueller are at least thinking about it.