Absent personal experience, it’s impossible to understand the emotional turmoil that burdens James Foley’s family. Or Steven Sotloff’s family. Or David Haines’s family.
Of course, we can make a poor estimation. Kidnapped, imprisoned, and then beheaded on television, these men suffered grotesque horror. And even though they died with exceptional courage, their families’ wounds are unlikely ever to heal.
Recent news emphasizes this truth. James’s mother, Diane Foley, told ABC News that the Obama administration threatened to prosecute her if she and her family paid a ransom for her son. In another interview with CNN, Mrs. Foley said that the administration also instructed her to avoid speaking with the media.
At first glance, these warnings seem callous and morally inexcusable. Facing such a dire situation, most of us would instinctively support Mrs. Foley’s independent efforts to free her son.
But for the White House, ransom was never an option. Allowing ransom negotiations with the Islamic State would only motivate the terrorists to kidnap more Americans. This would in turn escalate the immediate threat the group presents to the United States.
The evidence for this is abundant and clear. Consider Europe. At present, al-Qaeda affiliates have accessed a lucrative ATM — in the form of Europeans willing to pay ransoms. Today, Europeans — especially French and German citizens — are specifically targeted for kidnapping. From the Islamic State’s perspective, these nationals are walking, talking multi-million-dollar bills.
Even so, some would say that such payments are a necessary evil in service of a greater good: saving lives.
But the opposite is true. To pay a ransom to global Salafi-Jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the Islamic State is to feed the grim reaper. The money funds a simple purpose: to advance bloody and brutal domination of as many people as possible. As I’ve explained before, if you want to know where the Islamic State spends its money, just watch their videos, which are testaments to an empire of death. Correspondingly, paying millions of dollars for one individual endangers many more innocents. Ransoms don’t alleviate a death sentence, they simply replace one death sentence with a multitude of others. That is a moral choice the American government must not make.
Apart from the question of ransom payments, some say that the Obama administration shouldn’t have pressured the Foleys to avoid the media. Again, however, the White House made the right call. Shortly before Sotloff was executed, his mother made an emotional plea to IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. She begged him to show mercy and spare her son. Watching that heartfelt plea, many Americans probably believed that it gave Sotloff a chance at life. That perhaps, just perhaps, IS would show mercy — if only to claim a propaganda victory.
Such beliefs neglect a simple truth: IS doesn’t regard life the same way Westerners do. To IS, the media coverage of a begging mother is nothing more than propaganda for divinely sanctioned death. It’s a welcome opportunity to impose terror and pain upon America. That’s because, for the Islamic State, life exists only in service to an ordained cause: expansion across the world of a brutal order that is part Salafi-fueled-extremism and part psychosis. Watch IS’s videos: The group takes special pleasure in taunting victims with their imminent murder. Consider the latest murder video, involving British citizen David Haines. In a clear formula, IS murders Haines, then presents its next intended victim.
This hatred for humanity has deep roots. Recall the state of Fallujah prior to November 2004. Ruled by al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq group (the precursor organization to IS), the city was a factory of death in which hostages were used to extract maximum propaganda value and then ritualistically slaughtered. This is the legacy that IS follows; this is the world it aims to create. The terrible truth is that absent ransom or rescue, these murders were always inevitable.
This isn’t to say that the Foley family has no right to be angry. After all, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, the Pentagon believed that President Obama was reluctant to authorize intelligence assets that might have located Foley and his fellow hostages in time to stage a successful rescue mission. The president apparently feared that conducting intrusive surveillance flights over Syria “would violate the country’s sovereignty and deepen U.S. involvement in the civil war.” If so, Obama here made the wrong call.
The Obama administration holds a less-than-stellar record on hostage negotiations. The Bergdahl swap — occurring while Americans remained on the ground in the Afghanistan fight — set a problematic precedent. Finally, the administration’s leaking of the failed Syria rescue mission is a disgrace that has aided the enemy.
Nevertheless, when it comes to hostages such James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines, righteous emotions must not displace a government’s rationality. Ultimately, paying ransoms to the Islamic State is an unconscionable acquiescence to death.