Talking about hostages does not bring them home. Neither, though, does keeping quiet.
What public awareness can accomplish, rather, is building pressure that forces an administration to take some sort of action.
In the case of U.S. journalist Austin Tice, news of his unfathomable ordeal seems to finally be gaining traction with the general public.
But since his arrest and detention in Syria, Tice is still being held incommunicado, with no one taking responsibility for his welfare and his exact whereabouts unknown. This is a failure on all levels.
We can do much better for him.
As of Wednesday, Tice will have been missing in Syria for seven years. “I don’t want another year to go by,” his mother, Debra Tice, told me this week. “I don’t want people to be made aware that Austin is being detained. I want people to celebrate his freedom.”
She believes there is an opportunity to bring her son home. And this isn’t the first such moment in the excruciating seven years she and her family have fought for his return. “Those open windows are not permanently open.”
I first heard about Austin Tice from an editor on The Post’s foreign desk when I was visiting the newsroom in 2012. I had been a correspondent for the paper for just a few months at the time. In the years since, I’ve gotten married, experienced arrest and a sham trial in Tehran, spent a year and a half in prison there, and gained my freedom in a negotiated settlement between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Following my release, I’ve had nearly four years to begin piecing my life back together.
Austin Tice and his family have been denied all those moments. They’re still waiting for his freedom and a happy reunion that is long overdue.
The twists and turns in the Tice family’s ordeal to win his safe return have been agonizing. Long stretches of time with no news have been the norm for most of his captivity. In recent months, though, the Trump administration has given indications that it is getting closer to securing Austin Tice’s release.
The Tices were initially concerned that the arrival of a new president in 2017 would complicate efforts, but they say the change in administration was a “seminal moment” in the quest for Austin Tice’s freedom. They credit career officers at both the State Department and the FBI for quickly getting new officials up to speed.
President Trump, the Tices say, has proved his stated commitment to bring home Americans unjustly detained abroad, showing a willingness to try new methods. “There started to be real evidence of this administration’s focus on Americans detained overseas,” Marc Tice, Austin’s father, said, citing the cases of several U.S. citizens who were released by governments with which we’ve traditionally had fraught relations.
Much of that credit goes to Trump’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Robert O’Brien, who is tasked with working to secure the release of Americans held abroad.
“As I have consistently said over the past year and a half, the U.S. government believes that Austin is alive and we implore his captors, as a matter of basic humanity, to release him now,” O’Brien told me in an email. “We work on Austin’s case every day. I have briefed the President and Secretary [of State] on Austin and have raised his situation in over a score of capitals — both in the region and around the world. We will not rest until Austin and our other captive citizens around the world are returned home.”
Recently, though, O’Brien’s efforts were temporarily sidetracked by another high-profile case. The diplomat was dispatched to Sweden to monitor the court proceedings in the assault case against U.S. musician A$AP Rocky.
O’Brien is an official whose mandate is to free Americans held hostage. Sending him to monitor a court hearing in a criminal case in the capital of one of our closest democratic allies was correspondingly controversial. But it underscored how vital public attention is in spurring this president — and, arguably, most of his predecessors — into action.
Keeping Tice in the public consciousness has been an ongoing challenge, but press-freedom advocates have redoubled their efforts this year to raise awareness of his plight.
Ultimately, though, winning Tice’s freedom will likely require a creative solution that takes into account the shifting tides in Syria’s long civil war.
The release last month of U.S. citizen Sam Goodwin offers clear evidence that it is now possible to influence the fates of Americans and others detained by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, even if it didn’t appear to be so in the past. U.S. authorities must do everything in their power to employ what they have learned from the release of Goodwin (and others) to secure freedom for Tice.