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Albert Einstein was fond of saying that the height of human folly is to perform the same experiment over and over while expecting a different outcome each time. A comparable case in point is so-called American Hostage Situation Policy, which in essence refuses any form of negotiation with hostage-takers like ISIS on the grounds that such negotiation will only encourage terrorists and other hostage takers to take even more hostages. The United States officially sees the very act of talking to terrorists as encouraging terrorism, and talking to hostage takers to encourage even more hostages to be taken, with more demands for ransom money which could then be used to promote even more terrorism.
But official American policy in this crucial area -- particularly crucial to the totally-innocent families of hostages -- goes even beyond non-negotiation, and includes threats against families who are willing to discuss, or even pay, ransom money to attempt to secure release of a family member taken hostage. President Barack Obama met recently with families of some two-dozen hostages taken mainly in the Middle East, and often tortured and later killed, to hear their views and offer American support, whatever that may mean. The President also indicated no plan to change our policy in such situations, which rather contradicts any meaningful support, but said that he is looking into the situation, whatever that may mean. Meanwhile, however, numerous hostage families have been specifically told by the FBI and other federal agencies that even for them to negotiate ransom with hostage takers is likely to violate American laws, for which they may well be prosecuted. To say that these families are between a rock and hard place would be putting it mildly.
The logic of our present approach is hard to fathom. First of all, terrorist groups which take hostages have no shortage of funds, as they are well-financed by such nations as our so-called-friend Saudi Arabia, which plays both sides of the field. Second, hostages are usually taken as a matter of so-called principle, such as ISIS misguided policy of capturing, and often torturing and killing, Christians who happen to reside in areas which ISIS is successfully taking over. Third, the base reason for negotiating with hostage-takers has nothing to do with supporting hostage-taking -- rather, that reason stems from common humanity and common decency, and the refusal to look the other way when innocents are taken hostage. Many other nations follow a more-humane approach.
Radical and terrorist groups do not need any incentive to take hostages -- such actions are part of their basic game-plan to call attention to their causes by utilizing the most barbaric, cruel, uncivilized, and despicable tactics. Ransom money is not the real incentive for hostage-taking, although it may serve as an additional benefit to the terrorists. The real incentive is to shock the civilized world into fear, and ultimately submission, to whatever cause the hostage-takers espouse. American threats to prosecute families for private attempts to negotiate with hostage-takers essentially support the taking of hostages, by trying to prevent what may well prove to be the only avenue to saving at least some hostages. Such threats indirectly put our nation in league with hostage takers, and are indeed despicable.
What is really needed is the immediate convening of a White House Task Force of specialists and experts in this area, including actual freed hostages and hostage negotiators as well as agency representatives and academics with counter-terrorism experience. There are many cases in which hostages taken by radical and terrorist groups were ultimately freed, including the American diplomats and their staff taken hostage by Iranian militants going back to the late 1970s.
We need to fully understand just when hostage negotiations work, and when they do not. And we desperately need to find creative solutions to hostage situations. Creating a new top-level federal agency which focuses only on this problem -- rather than spreading responsibilities in this area widely and ineffectively -- would be a good start.
Eugene Elander has been a progressive social and political activist for decades. As an author, he won the Young Poets Award at 16 from the Dayton Poets Guild for his poem, The Vision. He was chosen Poet Laureate of (more...)