February 9, 2006

Should Hostages Be Given Up For Dead?

Terrorists have been taking hostages for as long as they have been able. The current hostage crisis -- a bunch of shitheads have taken a journalist hostage and are demanding the release of a variety of prisoners in exchange for her -- is actually no different than other ones. Hostage-taking is a particularly twisted form of terrorism to use hostages as leverage, since it only works against a people who have compassion and care for their own who have been taken. And carrying through on the threat of killing the hostage deprives the terrorist of the very leverage that the terrorist seeks. So a hostage situation is a double dilemma, a gigantic game of chicken played for blood stakes.

Thinking of a way out of this reminds me that a long time ago, I read a book called The Mote in God's Eye. It was a science fiction novel, with its main subject being humans coming into contact with aliens and learning about their world in the early thirty-first century. While it was mainly interesting for its depiction of the aliens, one thing that indelibly struck me about the human culture in the future (still plauged by war, religious tensions, and economic difficulties despite the development of fantastic technologies) was that the human government of that novel had a simple, cold-hearted, and quite effective approach to hostage situations. If an enemy took a hostage, the hostage was immediately given up for dead, and the military ordered to track down the hostage-takers the same as if they had killed their hostage outright. If the hostage was killed during a reprisal raid, so be it; the military took no special precautions to save the hostage's life.

The rationale behind that idea was, of course, that if the hostage was dead, the hostage had no value to his captors. If a commando storming a terrorist cell had the ability to shoot anything that moved indiscriminately without first having to decide if the target were really the enemy or a civilian, it would sure make the job of getting rid of the bad guys easier. Ultimately, it would dramatically reduce the number of hostage-taking situations that the military and the government would have to deal with. So the people in the novel believed that their policy was, in the larger sense, the most compassionate one possible.

Would that really be a better policy? Certainly it would reduce the number of hostage incidents -- but it might conversely increase the number of actual killings in their place. And I sure wouldn't want to be the one to walk up to this woman's family members, look them in the eyes, and tell them that even though we know perfectly well that she's alive, we're giving her up for dead. I could deliver bad news and could probably deliver the message if she really were dead. But she's not, is the thing. Thus, the dilemma.

I strongly doubt Americans would ever agree to such an idea anyway. We are, at our fundament, a compassionate people and we don't want to see civilians hurt -- even the civilians who are employed by and support our enemies. We've gone to such great lengths to create precision weaponry to destroy enemy assets with minimal loss of human life, particularly civilian life, that it stretches the limits of our vast technology and economic capabilities. A culture that goes to such lengths to preserve the lives of its enemies can hardly be expected to readily adopt an ethic of giving up its own for dead, especially when we are presented with evidence that they are not.

The idea is worth considering, at least as an abstraction. But we Americans lack the political will to implement this policy, which speaks well of our compassion as a people. There's a reason I've only read about this policy in a science fiction novel.

None of which brings this woman home to her family where she belongs. I don't have the solution to that dilemma. We certainly can't give in to the terrorists' demands or we encourage more hostage-taking down the road, and we also wind up releasing a bunch of people who have probably been taken prisoner for a damn good reason. About the only thing I could condone by way of dealing with these people is to say, "Let her go free, unharmed, and we won't track you down and kill you. For this." But they wouldn't believe it even if we said it -- and I doubt we'd mean it anyway.

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