There's a cost to those ribbons.

Photographer: Marianne Todd/Getty Images

New Hostage Policy Walks a Fine Line

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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It’s good news that the Obama administration has announced it won’t prosecute families of hostages who seek to pay ransom to terrorist kidnappers, as families and commentators have urged. In the future, families will be able to undergo the agonizing process of trying to get their loved ones back without knowing that the U.S. government is actively interfering with their efforts.

The adoption of the new, more humane policy, however, is also occasion to remind ourselves of the social costs of too much public handwringing over the fate of American hostages. The example to avoid is Israel, where the return of a single soldier taken by Hamas, Gilad Shalit, became a national obsession. Shalit was ultimately returned to Israel in exchange for a stunning 1,027 prisoners in Israeli custody. Leaving aside the future incentives created by the deal, the Israeli cultural approach to hostage-taking is extremely costly to national security, weakening the country’s capacity to use force in self-defense.

That’s why President Barack Obama was also wise not to appoint a prominent hostage czar to become the public face of family coordination and negotiation. Such an appointment would’ve drawn too much attention to future hostage situations, thus weakening U.S. capacity to send aid workers, journalists and, yes, undercover operatives to danger zones.

The right way to deal with hostages is low-key -- away from the headlines. The government shouldn’t block families from negotiating. But our media culture also shouldn’t make the families into national figures with outsize political pull.

Of course, the U.S. has its own national hostage-taking trauma to help show us what not to do. The Iranian hostage crisis not only helped bring down a president, but also arguably harmed U.S. national security by showing that our domestic politics could be shaped from abroad.

To some degree, this result was inevitable. No country could tolerate the violation of diplomatic immunity without making some public response. But in retrospect, the yellow ribbons, which I remember clearly from my own childhood, made the situation worse. The sense that the country was being held hostage along with its diplomats was detrimental. In fact, the nation wasn’t being held hostage -- 52 Americans were.

Ted Koppel surely didn’t intend it. But ABC’s “Nightline” program, born out of “America Held Hostage” with its distinctive count of days, contributed markedly to this phenomenon of weakness, and probably helped get Ronald Reagan elected. By activating collective emotion in a way newspapers never could, television encouraged an empathy to the hostages that isn’t advantageous to policy makers trying to make the nation strong.

Israel’s recent example is even more extreme. During the five years that Gilad Shalit was held by Hamas between 2006 and 2011, he came to be known by his first name not only in Israel but also in the Jewish diaspora. The use of “Gilad” functioned as a marker of closeness and familiarity. Shalit was perceived as everyone’s son or brother. Congregations in Israel and abroad added special weekly prayers for his return.

Doubtless there was some gain to Israel’s national security from this attention. Israel is a politically fractured society, and solidarity can be a beneficial social force. Perhaps, too, it helped soldiers’ morale to know the public wouldn’t forget them if they were taken as prisoners.

But the concern for Shalit ultimately went too far. The overweighting of one person’s fate distorts the basic strategic calculus that must be made by realistic government leaders. In war, soldiers die -- as do civilians, killed by collateral damage. The choice to fight therefore necessarily involves a brutal cost-benefit evaluation. When the capture of a soldier becomes a matter of constant national attention and focus, this limits and constrains a leader’s capacity to use force in national self-defense.

The distortion actually goes even further. When the public is more upset about a captured soldier than about soldiers who have died, an incentive arises to make sure your troops aren’t taken prisoner. The so-called Hannibal directive, which recommends the use of extreme force at the moment when Israeli soldiers are being taken, is an example of the effects of that distortion. Formally, the directive doesn’t say that the goal is for Israeli soldiers to kill their colleagues rather than have them taken prisoner, but everyone understands that this is the likely effect.

In the U.S., the social costs of focusing too much public attention and sympathy on the families of hostages are similar. We gain significantly when American journalists, aid workers and operatives deploy abroad. But if the public then obsesses over their fate if they’re kidnapped, that forces the government to prioritize their return over competing national security interests. As a result, the government will try to stop them from going in the first place.

With few exceptions, today’s hostages are brave, idealistic and committed people who know the risks of their missions. Indeed, they typically have more control over their decision to go than do soldiers, who choose to join the military but are ordered to a particular theater.

The hostages’ free choice and bravery are not reasons to ignore them when they’re captured. And sympathy for their families is natural. But we need to remember that such abductions are part of the price of doing business in dangerous places.

In the end, the best effect of the new policy may be to reduce public sympathy for the hostages’ families. What we all should know is that, quietly, the government is trying to get them back, or at least not blocking private efforts.

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

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net