A Vast Silence

Here’s where we find yesterday’s top-of-the-fold story at the Gray Lady, where some actual investigative journalism had produced reportable evidence that six national governments have paid an eighth of a billion dollars to al-Qaeda affiliates over the past six years in ransoms for Europeans kidnapped and held hostage. Not quite half of that money came from the French government. (The USA and the UK have resisted similar requests.)

Now, I’m not so naive as to have been unaware of the existence of K&R insurance, which is available on the private market. So it’s not like legitimate monies aren’t already being used to pay off Bad Guys and thus enable the crime of kidnapping for ransom to succeed. But it’s something rather different when a government pays that money, and while I suppose there’s no qualitative difference between paying it to an al-Qaeda terrorist organization or to the Mafia or to an otherwise-unorganized gang of simple thugs, it feels different somehow. The story fills me with outrage and frustration — I hate seeing legitimate government money used to reward violent criminal behavior and then fund more violence wreaked against innocent civilians in an effort to effect seriously undesirable political change.*

And at the same time, I think about what it would be like to be kidnapped, or to have someone I love be taken in that manner, and how very much I would want my government, someone, anyone, to intervene and get the hostage returned home safely. So the situation is fraught with moral and emotional ambiguity.

Thing is, I think this story is kind of a big deal.

So it’s very surprising to me that this story hasn’t been featured more prominently anywhere other than the New York Times. Fox News has it listed as a sub-item of a below-the-fold bullet point about (WTF but predictably) Benghazigate:

Fox News ScreencapAnd from there, it’s awhole lot of nothing out there on theIntertubes.CNN’s website has top stories about how women voters and guns will affect the GOP (answer seems sort of obvious since some women like guns and others don’t) and a burst water main in Los Angeles flooding several buildings on the UCLA campus. NBC looks barely readable, and it doesn’t have it at all, either — its top stories are about the Ebola virus breakout and stuff blowing up in Gaza and Israel. So too with CBS, ABC is even more vapid, with its top story being about Satanists shopping at Hobby Lobby wearing goofy devil costumes to cheese offtehxtians.

So much for broadcast news outlets; print journalism websites yield little better. No mention at the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Sun-Times, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, or the Miami Herald. A search for the word “ransom” on the front pages of the websites for all these papers revealed only one, the L.A. Times, which had a story about an Argentinian soccer player’s son being kidnapped and ransomed off, a story which I had to dig all the way down to the New York Daily News to find repeated.

But no mention at all, anywhere, of the governments of our national security allies paying ransoms to al-Qaeda, other than FOX News, which seems to think the story is somehow related to Benghazi, which I guess in sort of a holistic-reporting-on-terrorism way it kind-of-sorta-is.

Well, what about the blogosphere? It’s not on Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, and while it’s sometimes difficult to tell with short oblique blurbs on Instapundit, I find no entry on Glenn Reynolds’ site containing the words “ransom,” “kidnap,” and “France” since 2007. Politico calls the story a “top talker” four items down in its morning report for today, but doesn’t link to the Gray Lady‘s report. It is today’s top story on Real Clear Defense, which earns it a way-far-downpage mention on the other Real Clear aggregators like Real Clear Politics, although sadly we’re no longer talking about top-tier blogs when we reach the Real Clear aggregators. Speaking of aggregators, memeorandum was where I learned about the story in the first place, and it shows links to the Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, The Telegraph, and two pretty decent if unglamorous blogs.

Is it good or bad to pay off these ransom demands? If it’s bad, then what should be done instead? Does this matter? Apparently not, because no one is talking about this. And that’s my other set of questions — does no one have anything to say about this? Does no one want to chime in on the Gray Lady’s investigative report? Is it because there’s a paywall at the NYT website and everyone’s already used up their ten free story views for the month?

 

* That’s a particularly chilling notion when we can see a real-life example of just how that sort of political change might successfully manifest in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. Not as much because the emerging de facto government of ISIS is avowedly Islamic, illiberal, overtly diplomatically hostile to the West, and expansionistic, although those things are not particularly charming to note. No, that emerging polity is chilling because it appears to be competent, an existential threat to the USA’s hapless treaty partner Iraq, and sitting on top of a whole bunch of some of the best oil-producing territory on the globe.

 

Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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18 thoughts on “A Vast Silence

  1. First, a technical point: is that more or less than we wound up paying out to ensure global economic stability (and avoid martial law)?

    People die. If you go into crazy places (like the Sierra Nevadas, you muddy goldgrubbers), you are more likely to die. I do not consider the government responsible for your safety. If you want to provide for your own safety, hire mercenaries or bodyguards.

    Is it fun? Knowing that you could avoid someone dying, if you were going to compromise your principles? Hell no. Leaves psychic scars too.

    Not everyone’s cut out to be a nurse, and not everyone’s cut out to sit on their heels and watch innocents die. But what needs done must be done.

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  2. Didn’t you write a post a few months ago saying that yes, it was absolutely right for the US government to trade several Al’Qaeda hostages for a single US soldier? Why is it different this time? Is it just that the money is more useful than the hostages that were traded?

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    • Yes, and yes — 5 al-Qaeda prisoners are worth less than one U.S. soldier, because one U.S. soldier (even a guy who might have deserted his post) is a more powerful military asset than 5 al-Qaeda soldiers. Money, on the other hand, is an integral part of the means by which a soldier’s destructive capabilities are magnified: the U.S. soldier is as powerful as she is in no small part because there is an immensely well-stocked and technologically-advanced military apparatus backing her up, not to mention investment of training and education that all of that money has put into her. Without substantial funds to get equipment, the al-Qaeda Bad Guys have Kalashnikovs or similar small arms, and aren’t going to do any substantial damage anywhere from a strategic point of view, no matter how clever they are. With funds, they become ISIS or the 9/11 bombers.

      At least from a utilitarian perspective, we kind of have to ask whether tourists, who are neither political nor military assets in any meaningful sense, are worth trading the means of magnifying an individual soldier’s power. Deontologically, of course, the military capabilities of an individual are irrelevant; the person is an end unto herself and the reason we have a government at all is to protect her. And we get into tough moral territory when those two calculi conflict, as here. I for one saw no such conflict with the Bergdahl hostage swap, for reasons stated supra.

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    • This was my thought. We often send people on rescue missions — mission they very well may and often do die on — to bring people back. We’ve traded prisoners to bring people back. We’ve changed policy to bring people back. Why is money worse? In some ways, money is better. “My son/daughter/husband/wife/mother/father had to die to bring those people back when we could have just paid to have them returned?!?!”

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      • And it’s time for some Kipling.

        It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
        To call upon a neighbour and to say: —
        “We invaded you last night–we are quite prepared to fight,
        Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

        And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
        And the people who ask it explain
        That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
        And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

        It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
        To puff and look important and to say: —
        “Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
        We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

        And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
        But we’ve proved it again and again,
        That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
        You never get rid of the Dane.

        It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
        For fear they should succumb and go astray;
        So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
        You will find it better policy to say: —

        “We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
        No matter how trifling the cost;
        For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
        And the nation that pays it is lost!”

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      • or

        When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
        And the women come out to cut up what remains,
        Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
        An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

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  3. My college acquaintance’s disappearance is approaching two years (there has been a video of him alive in the interim). On the one hand, I don’t like the idea of the government paying money to secure their release. On the other hand, the alternative in a lot of these cases is death rather than not-kidnapping…

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  4. So if the French have been paying off kidnappers, is our State Department going to brand them guilty of “material support of terrorist organizations” and close down all their bank accounts, put them on no fly lists, and prosecute them? There really is no difference.

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  5. K&R insurance

    int pay(insured, premium, carrier)
      struct individual *insured; 
      float premium;
      struct company *carrier;
    {
      float amt = debit(insured, premium);
      if (amt > 0)
      {
        credit(carrier, amt);
      }
      return amt == premium;
    }
    

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  6. I’m really surprised Fox isn’t running with this. Obama’s European friends are caving in to Islamic terrorists, while he sits quietly letting it happen? How is that not running 24/7 since the NYT ran the story?

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