By Christian Stellakis
Edited by Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
The leaders of the free world have repeated the mantra more times than can be counted: we do not negotiate with terrorists. Countries like the United States stand defiant in the face of global terrorist networks as they threaten our nations with violence. We do not flinch at coercive tactics or pay ransom demands. Our dealings with terrorists nearly always start and finish at the business end of a weapon. We act decisively and strike quickly. Those that threaten the safety of our families and homes will be held accountable. We neither acquiesce, nor do we negotiate.
At least, that is strong rhetoric that many of our leaders use when discussing international terrorism. The reality of the situation, though, despite what our President or Prime Minister might claim, is much more complicated than it initially appears.
On Tuesday, the Islamic militant group known as ISIS followed through on their threat to make Americans pay for their military intervention in Syria. The terrorist organisation released a video showing the execution of the American journalist Steven Sotloff. His death followed that of James Foley, another American journalist that was captured and summarily beheaded by the Islamic extremists. Their executions, despite being heinous terrorist attacks against the United States, served a very specific purpose. ISIS publicly released the videos to place pressure on the Obama Administration to cease its airstrike campaign against the terrorist organisation. It is an ultimatum in its purest form: either the United States backs down, or ISIS will continue to put American citizens to death.
In a sense, the coercion has been moderately successful. Americans have been rattled by these recent executions, and many people feel vulnerable. The disturbing images of Americans with knives to their throats have evoked a range of emotions from the people. The public’s anger, hatred and fear has stoked a significant response, with certain pundits arguing that the United States should have relented, paid a ransom, or halted the Syrian intervention completely. All of these actions have placed a great deal of pressure on the Obama Administration to act quickly, decisively and effectively to save the lives of innocent Americans.
The belief that the life of a hostage should be the highest priority when dealing with terrorism is quite common among the American public. In fact, a Gallup poll revealed that US citizens are split on the issue. About 43% of Americans believe that yielding to terrorists’ demands is justified if it saves the life of the prisoner. Once again the titular question presents itself: we never negotiate with terrorists, but should we?
The tragic answer is that, while the deaths of those journalists were an awful and untimely loss, we cannot afford to make deals with the people responsible for killing them. The cost is simply too high. Perhaps most importantly, if we did decide to negotiate terms of agreement to secure the release of a prisoner, through our acquiescence we place the lives of other innocents in danger. By providing ransom money, we supply the terrorist organisation with means to cause greater harm to a larger number of people. Money buys weapons, ammunition, manpower, and support, all of which go to an organisation known for its horrific brutality. By ceasing military action against ISIS, the United States tacitly permits the slaughter and displacement of thousands of innocents in the Iraq and Syrian regions. Worse yet, without intervention, ISIS may overtake the region, a result that would have catastrophic consequences in terms of ISIS’s terrorist capabilities as well as international relations.
Ultimately, the life of two Americans does not compare to the potential devastation that could ensue from negotiating with an incredibly dangerous organisation like ISIS. While this reasoning will fail to resonate with the grieving families of the victims, the ruthless calculus of war is a tragic reality of the world in which we live. We cannot retrieve the lives of those lost, but by refusing to negotiate with terrorists, we might be able to prevent the deaths of countless others.
Christian is a Junior at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. As an honors student and member of the Dean’s List, Christian is pursuing a degree in Economics and Government. He was accepted into Hamilton after graduating Valedictorian of Chittenango High School, where he served as the Opinion Editor for the school newspaper. Christian is an avid member of the Hamilton College Debate Society and a frequent contributor to the political discourse at the college.