The price of an American life.

Does No-Ransom Rule Risk American Lives?

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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The New York Times has the tragic and affecting account of the efforts of the family of the late James Foley to secure his release from Islamic State. Family members complain that they received little assistance -- and little information -- from the U.S. government. When it became clear via e-mail exchanges from the captors that Islamic State wanted money in exchange for Foley's freedom, the family was warned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that providing funds to terrorist groups -- even in ransom for a hostage -- was illegal. The family of course became further incensed when it learned that most European governments routinely negotiate payment for the release of their nationals.

The basic tale has been around for a while, but the Times story includes two interesting twists. The first is this quote from retired Gen. John R. Allen, formerly head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan:

What is hard to prove is how many Americans have not been kidnapped as a result of the fact that the enemy knows they will not get a penny from us. ... The fact that there are Americans in the region who were never taken because they knew there was no advantage to doing so needs to be factored in.

Here we see conflict theory at its chilliest and most remote: By not paying for hostages, even in the face of brutal murder -- so the argument runs -- the U.S. reduces the incentive to take its nationals hostage in the first place. Start paying, and the rate of hostage taking will go up.

Let's assume that Allen is right. This leads to the next twist in the story. According to the Times, the families of Foley and the other U.S. hostages were "aghast" when, in May, the U.S. agreed to trade five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo for the freedom of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Even if there were legal differences between the cases -- and there were -- the families were furious.

But let's again take seriously the theory that by not giving anything in return for hostages, we discourage hostage taking. Under this notion, as Allen explained, many more U.S. nationals would be at risk if the U.S. paid ransoms.

If this is so, however, wouldn't the trade of Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl encourage the taking of soldiers as hostages? It's true that the White House has sought to distinguish the cases on the grounds that Bergdahl was a prisoner of war and not a hostage, but the strategy of tit-for-tat in taking prisoners is a very old one in warfare. Once it's clear that trades are available, the enemy has an incentive to capture one's soldiers in order to trade. Thus, by Allen's own reasoning, the Bergdahl swap increases the returns to capturing American soldiers. It's a thought to bear in mind as the administration and its allies shape the new combat mission against Islamic State.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Stephen L Carter at

To contact the editor on this story:
Michael Newman at