Another plea had just come in, and it was like the others. Directed at the the leader of the Islamic State, it evoked the anguish of a desperate mother whose son is so very far away, held by unknown captors who could well become his executioners. Her name is Paula Kassig, mother of Peter, and she wants her son back.
“I am trying to get in touch with the Islamic State about my son’s fate,” she wrote Wednesday evening. “I am an old woman, and [Peter] is my only child. My husband and I are on our own, with no help from the government. We would like to talk to you. How can we reach you?”
The message pleading for the release of the American aid worker Peter Kassig, who the Islamic State captured last year in Syria, was tragic for any number of reasons. It was tragic because it echoed the unheeded pleas of the other families. “I want what every mother wants, to live to see their children’s children,” the mother of Stephen Sotloff begged before her son’s execution. “I plead with you to grant me this.” The wife of executed British hostage Alan Henning also issued a plaintive statement: “I implore the people of the Islamic State to see it in their hearts to release my husband.” So did the family of David Haines, also beheaded by the Islamic State.
Paula Kassig’s message was also tragic because it carried notes of resentment — not just at the intractability of her son’s captivity, but over the perception U.S. authorities had forgotten her family. My husband and I are on our own, with no help from the government. She’s not the first family of an American hostage to feel abandoned by the government, reflecting tensions over what has become a controversial American policy of refusing to barter with terrorists.
The policy is this: The United States doesn’t often trade prisoners for hostages. It doesn’t pay ransom for hostages. What’s more, it’s a prosecutable offense for Americans to separately bargain with terrorists — information given to the family of Jim Foley when they wondered if they could try to pay for their son. And in contrast with some European nations, which pay ransoms and treat each hostage crisis as a national crisis, it sometimes doesn’t keep hostages’ families as informed as they would like.
Part of this may have to do with the difficulty in obtaining information in a country like Syria, which has all but ceased to function in a normal sense. But it also speaks to a reticence among U.S. officials who sometimes decline to share everything they know. “We cannot — and do not — want to give the families every single lead because some turn up to be dry holes, and we want to minimize a yo-yo effect,” an anonymous official told the New York Times, adding that some of the intelligence was classified and couldn’t be shared anyway.
It has resulted in a nightmarish situation for American families like the Kassigs, who now wait for what many fear could be an inevitable execution. The United States won’t pay a ransom for their son. They can’t either. And so they’re left to puzzle out what’s happening on their own.
“The FBI didn’t help us much — let’s face it,” James Foley’s mother, Diane, told the New York Times after her son was killed. “Our government was very clear that no ransom was going to be paid, or should be paid. It was horrible — and continues to be horrible. You are between a rock and a hard place.” In an interview with CNN, she expressed dismay, saying she was “embarrassed and appalled” at the attempts to retrieve her son: “Jim was killed in the most horrific way. He was sacrificed because of just a lack of coordination, lack of communication, lack of prioritization. As a family, we had to find our way through this on our own.”
It’s unclear what, if anything, U.S. officials are doing to try to free the remaining American hostages held by the Islamic State. According to a deeply-reported Foreign Policy piece published Wednesday night, recent efforts have “been stymied by a malfunctioning government bureaucracy that cannot agree on what the United States’ hostage negotiations policies actually are, including on such thorny issues as ransom payments.”
U.S. officials maintain refusing to pay ransom is the best way to keep future Americans safe. The thinking goes that it will keep millions of dollars out of the hands of groups such as the Islamic State, providing a natural deterrent to kidnapping Americans. “What is hard to prove is how many Americans have not been kidnapped as a result of the fact that the enemy knows they will not get a penny from us,” Gen. John Allen told the Times.
While there’s undisputed logic to such rationale, where does that leave the hostages — and their families? And how does it complicate efforts to free them? “Privately, U.S. officials acknowledge that their own lines of communication have been crossed and that family members aren’t always receiving a clear message of frequent enough updates on what the government is doing to free their loved ones,” Foreign Policy reported.