Hostages and Human Dignity
News reports indicate that Jordan is engaged in frantic negotiations with the Islamic State (ISIS) over a proposed hostage swap. Jordan is apparently willing to turn over a prisoner, would-be suicide bomber Sajida al-Rishawi, in exchange for ISIS releasing both a Jordanian air force pilot and a Japanese captive. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the deal appears to have collapsed.
Earlier video appeared to show that another Japanese hostage was murdered by ISIS–a development that provoked shock and outrage in Japan. ISIS hostage-takers had earlier demanded $200 million from the Japanese government in exchange for releasing the two Japanese nationals. Although Japan is not militarily engaged in the armed conflict against ISIS, the terrorist organization said that its actions were motivated by the financial assistance that Japan had pledged to the regional effort, though Japan clarified that the financial assistance was for non-military efforts. Unfortunately, that clarification did not dissuade ISIS from continuing to threaten the life of the remaining hostage.
It is unclear what policy Japan is following regarding negotiating with ISIS generally and paying ransom demands specifically.
The United States and Britain have explicit policies against paying ransom to ISIS or other terrorist organizations. Consequently, while many captives from other European countries have been released after their governments paid ransoms to ISIS, several U.S. and British hostages have been brutally beheaded because their governments refused to negotiate or give money to ISIS to win their release. This has caused anguish for the families of the hostages.
In this post, I don’t want to address the normative question of whether it is best (morally or strategically) to pay a ransom. Of course, paying the ransom wins the release of the individual hostage. However, it also emboldens and encourages ISIS and other terrorists to perpetrate more kidnappings. It is precisely for this reason that the U.S. refuses to negotiate and pay money to ISIS. The ransom payments are bankrolling the ISIS war in Iraq and Syria. So the European countries that are paying the ransoms are providing (indirectly and under duress) the resources for ISIS to fight the military coalition that is trying to stop them from carving its caliphate out of the territory of Iraq and Syria.
Rather, I want to ask the descriptive question of why most European governments are willing to pay the ransoms while the U.S. and Britain will not. Both sides of this issue understand the pragmatic consequences. So why the different conclusions?
I have spent a long time thinking of the question and the only answer i can find is: human dignity. The U.S. and British position sacrifices the interests of the individual hostage in order to serve a larger social goal: denying ISIS the financial resources to continue its military campaign. This is a consequentialist calculation. The problem is that it is not so good for the individual hostage.
European governments care about the lives of the hostages and are willing to save them, even though they know that saving them will make the overall situation worse, both for the global community as well as their own citizens will inevitably be taken hostage again. But they are unwilling to balance away the interests of the hostage for some larger societal interest. This preservation of, and respect for, human dignity is deeply entrenched in some European legal cultures. For example, article 1 of the German Constitution says that human life is inviolable and cannot be balanced away. Utilitarian balancing is impermissible as a matter of constitutional law if it violates the human dignity of the individual, who is entitled to moral and legal respect. This means that the life of the hostage cannot be subordinated to the global interests that are advanced by the policy of non-negotiation.
Of course, one caveat here. The cause of the hostage’s peril stems from an outside agent (ISIS), not the government. So the government is not directly harming the hostage by not paying the ransom. This makes the situation much different from the German Airliner case, where the German courts concluded that authorizing the shooting down of a hijacked airliner would be unconstitutional because it would violate the human dignity of the innocent passengers. In that situation, the passengers would have been killed by the German government, while in the case of the hostages, their deaths would be caused by ISIS, not their own government. This is a relevant difference, both morally and legally.
That being said, I still think that, as a descriptive matter, the commitment to human dignity and moral individualism is at play in the background here. For some European governments, as well as their domestic populations exerting political pressure on them, the interests of individual citizens cannot be dismissed simply because a larger social policy requires doing something different. For some European governments, that social policy sounds particularly cold because it indirectly ends up condemning the individual hostages. The question is why these governments think this result would be cold. And I think the reason why is because the commitment to Kantian dignity is more deeply engrained in some legal cultures than others.