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Should Parents Ransom Their Children From Terrorists?

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The parents of murdered journalist Steven Sotloff, who was killed in 2014 by the Islamic State, have spoken out about how the U.S. government prevented them from giving ISIS ransom money for their son’s life.

When ISIS spoke out saying they had Sotloff in captivity, they demanded the U.S. release all the Muslims in American captivity. They also issued a ransom demand for $137 million.

Art and Shirley Sotloff told 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl they initially tried to figure out how to raise the money. They were told by the Obama administration that the U.S. does not allow its citizens to pay ransoms to terrorist groups, nor does it pay ransoms itself.

These are horrible choices. On the one hand, if you don’t pay a ransom, you are putting an innocent life at risk,” assistant to U.S. President Barack Obama on counterterrorism Lisa Monaco told 60 minutes. “On the other hand, if you do, you’re fueling the very activity that’s put them at risk in the first place.”

The Sotloffs attended a meeting with members of the National Security Council in Washington with families of other hostages. They were told by the government that if they attempted to raise the money for ransoms they could be prosecuted.

Some 14 hostages from European countries who were imprisoned alongside Sotloff were released after their respective countries paid ransoms. Sadly, four American hostages and two British hostages were murdered by the terror group.

The Sotloffs argued in the 60 minutes episode that the American government should pay the ransoms of those kidnapped by terror groups such as ISIS.

It’s a human life,” Shirley said. “How do you let an American go like that, just let them be killed and murdered?  Every human is valuable. Everybody has a family, and they want them to come home.”

Lisa Monaco did not do a robust job of defending the government’s policy in the 60 Minutes piece.

“I feel like, in many respects, we did not do right by these families. That we failed them,” she said.

But what she failed to mention is how many other U.S. citizens would have been kidnapped murdered by ISIS had the United States provided them with the requested ransom. In addition, how many Iraqis and Syrians would have been murdered with that money? How long could ISIS cover salaries for its fighters, ammunition for its guns and video equipment for its beheading videos with such a large sum of money?

Yes, the 14 Europeans went home. But at what price? How much money did the Europeans hand over to get their people back? What was that money used for?

Art Sotloff spoke to Barack Obama and asked him, “How did you feel when my son was being held up by his neck and they were saying that this message is for you, President Obama.  Steven’s life depends on your next decision.  How do you feel about that?”

Had Obama not prevented the ransom, would Art Sotloff have been able to look into the eyes of an Iraqi mother who told him, “My son died so that yours could live. The money you gave ISIS paid for the murder of my family and the destruction of my home.”

In 2011, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for one of its soldiers, Gilad Shalit, following  a massive public pressure campaign from the Shalit family. Many of those released went on the commit acts of terror. For example, in 2014, one of those terrorists released murdered a senior police officer, Baruch Mizrahi. Was Mizrahi’s life worth less than Shalit’s?

It’s the job of governments to make sure that decisions of life and death like this are made calmly, rationally and to the greatest benefit of the greatest number.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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