A little after midnight Wednesday - early Thursday, technically - a man phoned me to talk about people who hold other people hostage.
"Yesterday it was the guy in Indianapolis who strapped a sawed-off shotgun to a banker's head," he said. "Tonight it was the guy who took hostages in the bank in Silver Spring. He's just released the last of them, but the point is that nobody is safe any more. You never know when some guy with a gun is going to walk in and take hostages."
"True," I said, "but that's the way things are these days."
"You shouldn't resign yourself to it," he said. "While I was watching on the tube tonight, I got an idea that might put a stop to hostage taking - or at least cut it way down."
"What's your idea?" I asked.
"What we need is a new law," he said. "A law that would forbid anybody from making any kind of deal with a person who is holding hostages. And the second part of that law would be that any promise of immunity made to a gunman holdings a hostage would be illegal."
"The idea being what?"
"The idea being that if the gunman knows in advance that it is illegal for anybody to negotiate with him and that a promise of immunity is worthless, he won't take any hostages to begin with. What would be the point? He'd have nothing to gain."
"I don't think we're quite on the same wavelength," I said.
"Why not?" he asked.
"Look at the record," I suggested. "In most cases, the police are able to free the hostages through negotiation. In the District of Columbia alone we've had at least a dozen tense situations involving hostages. To the best of my recollection, the police have never fired a shot, no hostage has been injured, and every gunman has been quitely taken into custody.Why would we want to tie the hands of the police with a law that forbids them to negotiate?"
"I'm not criticizing the cops," my caller said. "I'll grant you that they have a good record on these hostage case, especially in the Washington area. But in other places, the cops have sometimes been very quick to cave in. Take this case in Indianapolis. The guy says he wants money, they promise him money. When he has the nerve to ask for immunity, the officials fall all over themselves to try to work out immunity for him. If he'd have asked them for the monument they have in the circle out there, I'm sure they'd have promised him that, too. Can't you see what that does? It just encourages the next gunman to take hostages."
"If the sawed-off shotgun was pointed at your head," I commented, "I don't think you'd be in favor of a law that probihited the police from trying to negotiate with the person who was threatening you."
He gnawed on that one for a few seconds. Then he said, "You have a point. But I don't think we can afford to judge this on the basis of my life or your life. I think we have to establish some principles for dealing with these cases regardless of whose life is at stake."
"What kind of principles?"
"The principle that there is no legal standing to a promise given while there is a gun at your head. We have to establish that the gunman can't hold you to that kind of promise. Also the principle that if he is promised immunity, the promise isn't binding."
Now it was my turn to think for a while. Finally I said, "I don't know. I'd want to hear some arguments for and against. It may be that a promise extracted under threat of violence is already unenforceable inder existing law."
"Think about it," he said. "I say we need a new law on hostages. It's gotten so, nobody's safe more, and I don't like it."
I'm not exactly ecastatic it myself, friend. I just don't want to make it worse. So far, the police have exhibited a deft touch in handling these cases, and I have a strong feeling that my best contribution will be to stay out of their way.