Liberty at a Cost

The Society gathered for the first time this semester to consider Resolved: The U.S. Government should maintain its policy of not paying ransom to terrorists holding U.S. citizens hostage. According to President Whelan‘s opening remark, it is time that we reexamine this controversial foreign policy “in defense of liberty” in the wake of a recent attack against Parisian satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Two juniors returning from abroad keynoted the debate, with Ms. Laura Kurek (SFS ’16) of Illinois on the affirmation and Ms. Madeleine Ringwald (COL ’16) of New York on the negation.

Opening the debate, Ms. Kurek brought us straight into the Algerian desert and into the hands of ransom-seeking jihadists. Defining this scene as hostage-taking according to the international law, she asked us to consider other options first: military actions or rescue attempts, diplomacy, prisoner exchange and individual payment — these are all valid steps already taken and proved effective in the past. But ransom-paying, by far the easiest option, should not be taken because it creates a vicious cycle by increasing the possibility of future kidnaps and directly funding terrorist activities – a fact even European countries recognized by denying direct ransom-payment. When the Islamic Nation released brutal beheading videos and requested exorbitant sums of ransom, the answer for the U.S. government “is not to give in, but to push hard.” With the same moving words “in the end, we are talking about human lives,” Ms. Kurek warned us that “paying ransom doesn’t save [them]!

Happily surprised at seeing The Society’s new faces, Ms. Ringwald began her speech with a simple observation: terrorists are still getting ransom from other countries but our citizens are not going home. What’s more, when terrorists believe that the U.S. government is paying through a third party, “what matters is what the terrorists think.” She then brought up the issue of publicity: When we allowed the terrorists to behead 3 American hostages in videos, we were assisting them in recruiting those people “who want to see Americans beheaded.” Furthermore, Ms. Ringwald pointed to our nation’s failure in protecting the free press and the journalists who “[crouched] down in the middle of the battle” to bring us timely information. The first two words of all news articles, she reminded us, are the city and country from which that article is published – with no guarantee for the journalist’s own safety. When newspapers stop sending their journalists to war zones for fear of another “James Foley,” from whom can we reap the benefits of a full comprehensive free press? In the realm of ideology, Ms. Ringwald firmly believed that America should “acknowledge its failures and say ‘yes’ to its citizens.”

Back from the “frontline” in Jordan, Mr. Jatovsky appreciated Ms. Ringwald’s compelling message on free press but saw a little more complexity. The beheading of hostages is not related to ransom, he asserted, as the Islamic Nation’s ultimate goal is to affirm its own legitimacy by U.S. involvement. But turning to history, Mr. Fletcher remembered that America used to be on the other side of the negotiation when George Washington sentenced to death a British loyalist. A norm of non-negotiation only “closes off the option and reduces us to violence.” Mr. Musgrave, however, questioned this analogy because the Islamic State, unlike Britain or U.S., is not a legal state. Thus, he passionately called for military actions because we are not “a nation of capitulators.”

Ms. Hernick countered that those terrorists who beheaded journalists, unfortunately, do not share this view. When they get so irrational and take it so far, the U.S. should not sacrifice innocent journalists for its principal. But Mr. Kleinman reiterated that intervention leads to legitimacy and found the affirmation not capitulating but saving lives by cutting off the money behind terrorist attacks. While admitting the cost to paying ransom, Mr. Naft argued that we should always do something about the situation. But Mr. Ahmed asked “What next?” after we put price tags on heads.

Mr. Schafer pointed to the fact that other countries are paying ransom regardless of our decision, making our ransom only “a drop in the bucket” in funding terrorism. Ms. Christensen, however, saw ransom-paying as an “all or nothing situation,” where we cannot leave out some hostages while saving others. Accusing previous floor speeches as utilitarian, Mr. Mouch believed that America should assert its value of the individual. But Vice President Thanki rebuked that America needs credibility in its policy because “if you don’t stand strongly for it, it’s not worth standing for at all.” Mr. Eisen courted controversy when he proposed “giving money to terrorists” in clean transaction to prevent them from building states and selling drugs – a policy similar to providing clean needles for junkies.

Mr. Joseph Laposata (COL ’16) opened the non-member speaking time by a quote from a general: “What happens to the combatant total?” Just as one man down leads to nine men up for their relative or friend, so a short-term gain leads to a long-term lost. Ms. Sarah Griffin (SFS ’18) recounted her shock at America’s inaction to beheaded journalists and reasoned that terrorists can always get something out of a hostage – money or publicity. Targeting the monetary cost in paying ransom, Mr. Jawad Pullin (COL ’18) suggested that instead of funding terrorists to fight us, the U.S. should save its resources in preparation for a “long and contentious battle with China.” (But let’s make peace, Mr. Pullin.) A goal-oriented person, Mr. Kyle Rinaudo (SFS ’18) declared the president’s goal as safety and security. For him, having citizens killed proves an anti-terrorist strategy unsuccessful. Mr. Connor White (COL ’16) countered that American government should be accountable to its people, including reducing their risk of being kidnapped. But having watched the movie “Imitation Game,” Ms. Jessica Scovatow (SFS ’18) asked us to save the maximum number of lives regardless of nationalities.

Mr. Spagnuola (SFS ’14) rejected utilitarianism for values and decided to “oppose ideology with ideology.” Taking this premise, Mr. Edgar appreciated the infinite worth of every life and asked us to do away with strange, perverse and strategic calculations. But the calculations are not between saving and not saving lives, Mr. Quinn posited, they are between “who do we want to save.” Having been to an unstable Egypt, he was comfortable with his government making that calculation for him. However, a very relaxed Mr. Mazumder noted that our “stand is mere public facade” because we do pay ransom and the terrorists know that. Informing the American public through free-market takeover might be a better idea.

From a utilitarian standpoint, Chancellor DiMisa argued that the U.S. is not obligated to people who go somewhere in free will.  And statistics show that our policy has indeed reduced the risk of kidnapping and cut terrorist funding. But taking on a strategic viewpoint, Mr. Shaughnessy saw ransom-paying as a means to acquiring intelligence. Picking up Mr. Edgar’s argument, Mr. Wilson asserted that we should not become assassinates of mass murder by paying ransom. But Mr. Kendrick pushed back against this “obsession with whose hand is the blood on” and found it helpful to maintain “a policy of ambiguity”. Sgt. Willis responded by contesting that “our freedom to act” will be compromised because we then have to pay for all hostages.

Reclaiming the podium, Ms. Ringwald[threw] utilitarianism into the wind” and saw greater danger in beheading videos that furthered the Islamic State’s ideology campaign. Reading the first page of her U.S. passport, she demanded her government to prove that it really means what it pledges – the protection of citizens. But Ms. Kurek zoomed in on the money and resources behind propaganda. Asking in Russan “What to do? Who’s guilty?” she believed that America should be held to a higher standard while seeking out other alternatives. She keenly observed that although Ms. Ringwald, who was dressed in white, seemed to be on a nicer side, her side in black was ultimately the side to save lives.

With a vote of 54-6-19, this resolution was thoroughly affirmed!


Xinlan Hu

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