The Best Policy

Why We Can’t Help Margaret Hassan

No matter how tempting, governments shouldn’t negotiate with hostage-takers.

Margaret Hassan from al-Jazeera video
Margaret Hassan from al-Jazeera video

For more than three weeks, terrorists claiming to be part of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Monotheism and Jihad group toyed with Kenneth Bigley, his family, and the British public before severing his head and disseminating the video of the execution to audiences around the world. Before his murder, Bigley had begged Prime Minister Tony Blair to save his life, a sad spectacle that consumed the British media. Now Margaret Hassan, a dual Iraqi-British national who headed CARE International’s office in Iraq, is going through a similar round of humiliation and degradation. So too is Shosei Koda, a Japanese traveler recently snatched by Zarqawi’s followers. Teresa Borcz-Kalifa, a Polish national who has lived in Iraq for years, was abducted Oct. 28.

Hostages are a politician’s nightmare. A haggard victim appears on video pleading for his life, while his relatives call on their leaders to cut a deal. Again and again they appear on television while an anxious nation waits and prays. The politicians’ opponents, while careful not to endorse the terrorists’ demands, seize on the tragedy to portray the government’s policy as misguided, inept, and callous.

Beyond the often-gruesome death of the captives, hostage-taking is calamitous because it leaves governments powerless. Daring rescues by elite military units are exceptionally rare and require both superb intelligence and time to plan, both of which are usually lacking. Raids can lead to a bloodbath in which hostages and soldiers die along with terrorists. For every brilliant success, such as Israel’s 1976 commando raid on Entebbe, there are disasters such as the “Desert One” attempt to free U.S. hostages in Iran. So, leaders sit helplessly while the terrorists prance on the world media stage.

In Britain, this sense of government feebleness is particularly difficult since support for the Iraq war was initially weak, and the kidnappings further undermine Blair’s popularity. Indeed, before his execution, Bigley was shown huddled in a metal cage saying, “Tony Blair is lying,” and “He doesn’t care about me.” Hostage-takers may even hope to repeat in Britain what they see as their success in Spain this March, where their attacks on the Madrid commuter trains contributed to a change of government that, ultimately, led Spain to withdraw from Iraq.

It is tempting to end this nightmare by negotiating with terrorists. Overnight, a politician can go from heartless to caring, basking in the glow of a freed victim and a relieved family. Putting aside such cynicism, many political leaders have a genuine sense of responsibility for all their citizens and often put heavy pressure on their subordinates to obtain hostages’ release, even when the media and most of the public has forgotten them.

Not surprisingly, governments regularly negotiate and pay ransoms, release prisoners, or make other concessions. In the 1970s and 1980s, France and Germany made concessions to terrorists to free hostages and, they hoped, avoid further attacks. President Reagan, a staunch foe of terrorism, negotiated secretly with Iranian representatives and even sent them arms in a futile attempt to free imprisoned Westerners in Lebanon. Even Israel has often made deals, releasing large numbers of imprisoned militants in exchange for the release of Israelis, or even of their remains.

This temptation exists today. As the media spectacle over Bigley grew, Blair’s government became willing to hear the hostage-takers demands (all the while insisting that it was not “negotiating”), and the British Embassy in Baghdad distributed 50,000 leaflets that included a personal appeal from Bigley’s family to sway Iraqi opinion. So far, the British government has not made concessions, but the pressure is intense. Italy reportedly paid a million dollars to secure the release of two Italian aid workers, with one leading politician declaring, “In principle, we shouldn’t give in to blackmail, but this time we had to.” This “success” has further increased pressure on Blair.

Despite the political appeal, concessions usually prove to be a disaster. Most important, they demonstrate that hostage-taking works. Terrorists are then motivated to take more hostages and issue more grandiose demands. In September 1969, the Brazilian government freed 15 prisoners in exchange for the return of the U.S. ambassador; in March 1970, the government freed five more to secure the return of Japan’s consul-general; in June 1970, 40 more were released to gain the release of the U.S. consul-general; and in January 1971, the government freed 70 more to secure the return of the Swiss ambassador. Only a brutal government crackdown ended this cycle.

When groups receive a ransom, it also increases their financial dependence on kidnapping. Groups as disparate as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and FARC in Colombia have become bandits as much as terrorists, using abductions for financial gain as well as political purposes. Other terrorist groups, including factions that had thus far avoided this tactic, will attempt to emulate the success to reap similar political and financial rewards. So, concessions today create more victims tomorrow.

Of course, the devastation reaches well beyond victims and their governments. In Iraq, hostage-taking is striking horror into the hearts of aid workers, U.N. personnel, and private businessmen, all of whom fear that they too could end up sitting in an orange jumpsuit pleading for their lives if they go to Baghdad. Iraq’s economic and political reconstruction, which terrorists oppose, suffers as a result. Terrorists like Zarqawi are also convincingly demonstrating to Iraqis that their government and coalition forces cannot protect them—an image that leads people to collaborate with the insurgents and undermines the still-weak authorities.

Negotiations also legitimize the hostage-takers and prove that violence works. Once they are a party to talks, the terrorists become yet another political actor, their methods tacitly condoned. If they do force concessions, their successful resistance to the supposedly overwhelming power of the United States elevates them to the level of heroes. And concessions that involve a financial payoff swell the terrorists’ coffers.

Terrorists face a dilemma when governments refuse to negotiate with them. By killing the victim, they go against their self-proclaimed role as heroic Davids fighting the evil Goliath, and instead reveal themselves as murderers who deliberately prey on the helpless. Margaret Hassan’s plight is a painful example. Because of her dual nationality and her heroic role in providing relief to the Iraqi people through her work at CARE International, harming her would be highly unpopular and would undermine the terrorists’ claims that they care about the welfare of Iraqis. Even many Islamists sympathetic to the insurgents reject harming Hassan.

The best policy is clear: Hostage-taking should not be rewarded. But politics and a commendable sense of responsibility may win out, leading to the release of prisoners, the paying of ransoms, or other concessions. Unfortunately, we will only learn the cost of such expediency when the next hostage crisis occurs.