Captives.

“Millions for defense, but not one penny for tribute!” So said Congressman Robert Goodloe Harper in 1798 in response to an attempt by French foreign minister Talleyrand to extort a bribe in return for negotiating a treaty with the new United States. Then came the whole Barbary pirates engouement, where Americans got bent out of shape over North African corsairs capturing American sailors and holding them for ransom or selling them into slavery.[1] So, the Americans decided to burn the place down.[2] Not the last time that Americans have felt that way. Sometimes they act on it. Certainly it has become something of a cultural trope. “The Searchers” (dir. John Ford, 1956) tells the story of a revenge-mad man hunting the Comanche band that had killed most of his family and kidnapped his nieces. In theory, he wants the niece back; in reality, he’s out for blood. So a basic American history class would probably be a good idea for radical Islamists. JMO. You do what you want. It’s a free country. Well, ours is.

Anyway, as the twig is bent, so grows the tree. These days, terrorists often finance their operations by kidnapping Westerners (including Japanese) and holding them for ransom.[3] For a while, Somali fishermen-turned-pirates captured cargo ships and held both ship and crew for ransom.[4] Most countries just pay the ransom and get their people back as soon as possible. Not the US. The US opposes paying ransom, arguing—reasonably enough—that this just encourages the terrorists and pirates. Generally, the American public supports this policy.[5] In September 2014, almost two-thirds (62 percent) agreed that the government should not pay ransom, while 21 percent thought that the government should pay.

Theory versus Practice. Back in 2009, Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl wandered away from his post in Afghanistan. The Taliban snapped him up. In June 2014, the US traded five Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl. That’s “tribute.” Many Americans—43 percent according to a Pew poll—disapproved of the deal. The division followed the usual partisan lines of the Obama administration: 71 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of Democrats opposed the deal; while 55 percent of Democrats and 16 percent of Republicans approved the deal.[6] That means that 13 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of Democrats “don’t know.”

It is interesting to compare this with Israel’s response to similar situations. Since about 1985, Israel has traded Palestinian prisoners for captured Israeli soldiers, civilians, and war-dead. The customary tariff seems to be about 100 Palestinians for each Israeli: 86 Israelis released in exchange for 8,000 Palestinians.[7] It appears to be a widely shared axiom among Israelis that you get your people back, even at a high price.

[1] Previously, “Americans” had been “British.” This meant that Barbary corsairs capturing British-flagged vessels would vex the British government, which would send some hard-case from the Royal Navy to negotiate. “How ‘bout you give me some money and I give you the captives?” versus “How ‘bout you give me the captives and I let you go on living—until the next time our paths cross?”

[2] See: “To the Shores of Tripoli” (1942) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SeTMTN7KtUg and “Tripoli” (1950) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XZZnWMP4CU Oddly, both star John Payne.

[3] On the other hand, there’s this apocryphal story you still hear once in a while. Some Middle Eastern terrorists purportedly snatched a KGB officer and demanded ransom. Next thing you know they got a shoe-box delivered to their hide-out. Inside were the hands of one of the kidnappers who had gone out for falafel or something. Russkies got their guy back in a hurry.

[4] See: “Captain Phillips” (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2013).

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 5 September 2014, p. 17.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 20 June 2014, p. 17.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 20 June 2014, p. 16.

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