The Ransom Nightmares

Our column: The Sky is Falling! ... Again.

Like you, I’ve been watching the news coverage on the horrible death of Abu Sayyaf’s hostage, John Ridsdel in the Philippines, and the general hand wringing over K & R. As it happens, Mitch Potter of the Toronto Star has written a fairly balanced and useful analysis of the issues.

I’m struggling to find some Solomon-style wisdom for all this, because after all, we regularly look into K & R, and I can vividly recall debating it with a certain contributor who felt strongly that major insurers were subsidizing terrorism because of the policies that facilitated ransoms. She also argues they’re breaking international law. Is she right? Yes, on both counts. Is that the end of the discussion? Not by a long shot.

And this is where I want to yell at my TV set like Clint Eastwood on a park bench because certain things ain’t gettin’ said. First, let’s please move on from the obvious: everyone recognizes the transparent lie of “We don’t negotiate” when in fact we all know yes, government, you damn well do. You just don’t want to look like the nerdy wimp in high school who got beaten up and shoved in a locker. That’s why back channels are used and not talked about in public.

Corporations don’t discuss K & R in public because duh, they don’t want to be hit again. They can’t afford the luxury of tough guy posturing, saying they’ll never negotiate because they actually have to deal personally with the family of that engineer who has a hood over his face in a video. They face the urgencies of the nightmare close-up while the government checks its “optics” and decides how far it’ll stick its neck out. If you want to consider the agonizing decisions the corporate guys have to make, check out the feature we ran on hostage parlays.

It’s important to keep in mind that traditionally, our government—doesn’t matter who’s in power—has had to be shamed into actually giving a Bonobo chimp fart about what’s happened to you if you’ve travelled to a somewhat “iffy” country. Say what you like about the ‘Mericans, they spring into action and try to do something when even one of them is taken.

But how much should the government be on the hook for its citizens overseas? If Abu Sayyaf is holding your relative, you naturally say, “All the damn way, jackass, that’s my brother/sister/cousin fill in blank.” Who can blame you?

Okay. What about when they grab other hostages months later, because they know they can?

And then the news networks bring out the stock footage of Amanda Lindhout. Which is where I have a big problem.

Amanda LindhoutLindhout got into her nightmare of kidnapping, torture and rape in Somalia because of some truly stupid and reckless behaviour, which even she has more or less conceded in her own words and in her book written with a co-author. She wanted glory as a freelance journalist who had limited experience and who was trying to make her mark. Did she deserve the horrific treatment she endured? Of course not—not at all saying that. But it was Somalia. She was well aware that different organizations had high-tailed it out of there because hey, it’s considered the most dangerous place on Earth. It was freakin’ Somalia. “I’d like to say that I hesitated before heading into Somalia, but I didn’t,” she wrote in her book.

There is a difference between those like Ridsdel who were minding their own business, who were nabbed from a holiday resort that even actually had a security detail, and those who deliberately put themselves right smack in a war zone. Ottawa is right to say no. No, we’re not pledging help if you’re taken, not when you put yourself in that predicament, not when you put a dollar sign in a target on your back, and you didn’t even make any arrangements with an organization to partially keep an eye out for you.

The Editor at the front with Peshmerga forces in Kurdistan, Iraq. ©Jeff Pearce

I could be accused of belonging to that idiots’ club. And hey, I’ll cop to it. Last year, I went to the Kurdish front in Iraq. To be clear, my employer, Rogers, never asked me to go. My bosses thought I was nuts. They couldn’t stop me because I used my vacation. I was casually advised that maybe it was a good idea to invest in some K & R insurance. So was my heading off there reckless? Stupid? I was in a pretty safe city the whole time and up at the battle front, I was surrounded by the Peshmerga. These are mean mothers who can hold their own with ISIS and have often kicked their asses. I was probably safer with them near the front than in my hotel, about a block away from the U.S. consulate that had been bombed recently. So… easy to be brave with an army. Was it still kind of stupid…?

Yes, on a couple of counts. One, I didn’t pony up the insurance. I thought: Who the hell’s going to bother with me? But it’s not really about you, it’s the you that can be passed around like a commodity. Two, I came far too close to my stupidity getting me into trouble. I was on the plane to Erbil in Kurdistan, still wondering if I should make a side-trip afterwards to Baghdad. A tall, muscular American Marine who looked like he fell out of one of those topless hunk firefighter calendars told me he belonged to the detail that guards the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Here’s the perfect guy to hit up for advice. So I asked him: would it be okay for me to drop into the capital and look around? He put me straight by saying, “We don’t go anywhere outside without 12 guys.” Oh…. Interesting. You bet I didn’t decide to go.

Had I gone and been captured, no one should have had to pay my tab, emotional or financial, for my arrogant defiance of the risks. And yes, I might have felt differently with a blade to my neck. Does that mean a government should stop making queries, not use the back channels? Of course, not, but you can certainly can’t blame it if the clock runs out in that scenario. And again, this is where private companies who use K & R policies make gut-wrenching calls, which may never be revealed in public. So it’s been interesting to watch how certain news organizations have portrayed what little they know about this aspect, as if these companies might somehow be going behind the government’s back…when the truth is they’re trying to meet a responsibility of care to an employee.

The dilemma is not really over whether to pay or not pay anyway. The question should be: after the prisoner’s released, the ransom paid, how can we wipe these sadistic thugs off the planet? As an international community, we should be telling these criminals, You get one ransom—one. And then you better run as fast and far as you can, creeps. The Somali pirate situation continues, but it went into serious decline after the international community collectively brought the hammer down. France and Germany have undermined that collective will by reaching into their pockets far too easily and quickly.

Pierre Trudeau said, “Just watch me,” and the army rolled into Montreal in 1970, and we didn’t have any serious FLQ trouble after that. Done. Dusted. The message was: we are not screwing around with you. Justin Trudeau faces a similar challenge on a wider canvas where he can’t act unilaterally. But the message to sociopaths has to be the same. Here’s your money, and we have a nice supermax to go with it. When the world acts together, there is nowhere in the world for you to run.




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