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Weissberg Chair Simon holds Q&A on kidnapping, hostage situations involving journalists

On Tuesday, March 19, Beloit’s 2019 Weissberg Chair, Joel Simon, gave a Q and A on his research into terrorist kidnappings and hostage situations, as well as the government policies that affect hostage negotiations and ransom payment.

Simon was introduced by Professor Beth Dougherty as “the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists since 2006 […] He has written widely on press freedom for a number of publications including The New York Times. Before he joined CPJ in 1997 he worked for a decade as a freelance journalist in Latin America.”

Simon has published three books: “Endangered Mexico: An Environment on the Edge” (1997); “The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Press Freedom” (2014) and, most recently, “We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Hostages and Ransom.”  

Dougherty led the Q and A. Her questions included asking Simon to explain the differences in policy surrounding ransom between the United States and countries like Spain and France; the role of kidnapping and ransom insurance in hostage situations, and the case of Luke Somers, a freelance journalist and Beloit alum who was captured in Yemen by al-Qaeda in 2013 and executed during a botched US rescue attempt in 2014.

In his responses, Simon illuminated America’s “no concessions policy,” popularly understood as an official refusal to negotiate with terrorists. This policy was cemented under President Richard Nixon, and is often defended as a way to keep Americans safe while abroad. According to this argument, if terrorists knew that America would pay ransom for its citizens, then Americans would be seen as more valuable, thereby increasing the odds that they would be kidnapped.

According to Simon, there’s no real data to support this argument.

Furthermore, countries who are willing to pay ransom for their citizens, such as France and Spain, have a much higher rate of success in recovering hostages. “About 75% of French hostages come home who were kidnapped by a terror group,” said Simon. “100% of Spanish hostages come home. About 25% of Americans come home. That’s the cost of a no concessions policy.”

Americans are also placed at greater risk because they are seen as low-value hostages. If a terrorist organization has people from multiple countries–say two Spaniards and an American–and they want to kill one of their hostages to hurry up negotiations, etc…, they will kill the American, because they know the odds of getting money for them are much lower.

To further complicate matters, the United States will pay ransom to any organization provided they’re not on the U.S.’ list of recognized terrorist organizations. Simon used the example of Mexican drug cartels, which are viewed as criminal organizations, rather than as terrorist organizations. If a U.S. citizen is kidnapped by a criminal organization, then the U.S. will pay and directly assist families in recovering the hostage.

Where this gets complicated is that many terrorist organizations don’t understand, or don’t believe, this distinction in U.S. policy, so they assume that the U.S. is pretending it won’t pay as a negotiation tactic.

Due to this policy, the families of American hostages face the possibility of criminal prosecution if they attempt to pay the ransom themselves. The most direct assistance from the U.S. they can hope for is in recovery missions, as in the case of Luke Somers, but these missions almost always result in at least one death.  

The Q and A was eventually opened to questions from the audience, many of which concerned specific cases of journalists who had been taken hostage. Simon was familiar with each case, and was able to provide specifics in great detail.

One question concerned the psychological effects of returning home after being held hostage. Simon noted that hostages who have been held in captivity for an extended period of time have lower levels of PTSD then hostages who have only been held for a few days. According to Simon, this is because “in longer situations, hostages tend to stabilize and the trauma tends to be processed during captivity.”

Simon went on to note that the process of rematriculation into daily life is extremely delicate, and requires that the reintroduction of decisions must be done “in a very deliberate and slow way.” He also said that while it may be politically advantageous for leaders to welcome hostages home–meet them at the airport, throw parades, etc…–there’s a great risk psychologically in forcing so much stimulus on newly released hostages.

Those interested in the more nuanced contents of Simon’s talk may purchase his book, “We Want to Negotiate,” at the Beloit College Bookstore or online.

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