Ariel Sharon’s government has made what he calls a “moral choice” to swap more than 400 prisoners for the bodies of three Israeli soldiers and businessman Elhanan Tennenbaum. The swap has been in the works for about three years, and has been facilitated by German negotiators. The choice Mr. Sharon has made is indeed a moral one. It is a wrong one, because the other party to the swap is Hezbollah, the Iranian and Syrian-backed terrorist organization.
The theory behind the deal is that those who are being released — including Lebanese, Palestinians, and others — don’t have blood on their hands. They aren’t accused of terrorist acts, and are held for other “normal” crimes such as car theft. But what Israel begins with them does not end with them. Even before the exchange, the Hezbollah leaders are talking about the next stage, when they will bargain for the release of those such as Samir Kuntar, who — according to Ha’aretz, an Israeli newspaper — “killed an Israeli policeman and three members of the same family.” Once Israel takes this step, it sets itself on an endless path. And that is the problem with Mr. Sharon’s moral choice.
Is it ever moral to negotiate with terrorists? America — at least publicly — says no. But even we aren’t above trying to get hostages released by paying ransom. When the Burnhams — American missionaries in the Philippines — were held hostage by terrorists, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice engineered a payment of more than $100,000 to a middleman who promised he could deliver the Burnhams from the hands of the terrorists. Of course, he disappeared with the money. Later, one of the Burnhams died in a rescue attempt by the Philippine military. The issue isn’t whether the ransom succeeded. The issue is whether we — or any other nation — should pay ransom for hostages, whether in cash or released prisoners.
As Churchill once said, any clever person can make plans for winning a war if he has no responsibility for carrying them out. It is very easy to judge harshly those who have that responsibility. Israel has been the victim of terrorism since its birth. Its dealings with terrorism have succeeded and failed in about equal proportion, due mainly to the fact that the terrorists it faces have international support. Yassir Arafat is even welcomed to the UN’s community of nations in the status that should be reserved — at least — for those who are not themselves terrorists. (That, of course, would reduce the number of UN members considerably.) Do even those facts justify what Israel is doing?
Though Israel is our ally, we cannot see this question through their eyes. America is at war. Not with terrorism, which is a strategy, but with terrorists and the nations that support them. We have been fortunate that few Americans have been taken hostage but, inevitably, more will be. What shall we do the next time Americans are kidnapped for political ransom, not merely for money? We cannot do what Israel is now doing. We have to do what we did when Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl was kidnapped. We do our best to rescue (with whatever force is appropriate, be they the FBI or the Delta Force) and refuse to trade. Anything or anybody.
One aspect of the Israeli deal with Hezbollah brings this issue home to every American. Excluded from the deal is missing Israeli Air Force navigator Ron Arad, whose aircraft was lost in 1986. It’s likely that Hezbollah has knowledge of Arad, or his death, but the swap will occur without any development on Arad’s fate. U.S. Navy Captain Michael Scott Speicher’s aircraft was shot down on the first day of the 1991 Gulf War. His remains have never been recovered, and various reports are that he was alive as late as 2002. If Hezbollah or some other terrorist group produced Speicher for the international press, and demanded the release of some terrorists for him, what should the president do?
THE QUESTION IS NOT AN academic one. There are hundreds of terrorist prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The release of some or all of them could be demanded by terrorists holding American hostages. If we ever were so stupid as to take bin Laden alive, kidnapping of American hostages to obtain his release would be a virtual certainty. Scott Speicher is — if he is alive — a different case. He’s a military man, and terrorists are too media-savvy to try to ransom soldiers. They know that a soldier isn’t worth as much on the world’s stage as a civilian. Especially a kid.
The pressure on America would be enormous. Imagine the headlines, the tearful Dan Rather coverage of, say, Hezbollah videotapes of a few little girls held in some dank cave, crying for their mothers. Families would be broken by the horror and the sorrow. It would touch every one of us every day it went on, every moment. How could any American president not bargain for their release? I would hate to have to make that decision. But if I did, I would want it to be the right one, and the right one can only be to refuse. America’s security cannot be held hostage to the life of any American, young or old. Because if it were, the whole nation and all its interests would be hostage to anything terrorists desired. No terrorist would need to fear us, and no ally could count on us after we gave in to terrorists’ demands. All we can do is fight. Like the Israelis do, or at least did.
The infamous Black September attack on the Israeli Olympic team in Germany didn’t end with the horrifically botched German rescue attempt at the airport, when so many were killed. The Israelis doggedly pursued the terrorists who had escaped, and their superiors. For more than a decade, the Mossad hunted them down and killed them one by one. We would have to do that, and more. Much more.
Terrorism is, by definition, immoral. By agreeing to bargain with the hostage takers, we would make the decision to be — in a way — immoral too. The only step we should not take is to engage in their immoral ways, and that includes kidnapping. Many of the measures the Israelis take to fight terrorists are unsuccessful because they cannot stop the nations that harbor terrorists from doing so. If Americans were held hostage, we could take steps they can’t. We could attack any terrorist camps we know of, anywhere in the world, constantly and relentlessly. It might not result in the release of the hostages, but it would be more effective than even the president’s warning after 9-11. No sanctuary, no respite from American pressure and attack should be America’s response.
There will be limits to the war against terrorists and the nations that support them. But we — and the law of war — must be the ones to set them, or someone else will do it for us, and we will lose.
TAS Contributing Editor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and now appears as a talking warhead on radio and television.
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