- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2002

How much is the life of an American hostage worth? As reported by Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times, the bidding apparently reached $150,000 apiece when our government "facilitated" payment of $300,000 to someone claiming to be able to ransom Martin and Gracia Burnham, who have been held by the Abu Sayyaf terrorists in the Philippines for almost a year. The payment was made before Easter. There has been no release of the Burnhams and surprise, surprise no sign of the middleman since he took the money.
Within our government there was considerable disagreement on whether the payment would be made. The Defense Department, which has one view of terrorists, opposed the payment, while the State Department favored it. Both agencies have been trying to develop innovative ways to deal with terrorism since last September, and in this case the State Department won. Its argument emphasized the fact that Abu Sayyaf, while truly vicious, is small and presents no wider threat. Its practice of funding operations by kidnapping for ransom has gone on for years. Abu Sayyaf has killed hostages whose families and governments have not paid for their release or arranged their rescue. Last year alone, Abu Sayyaf kidnapped more than fifty teachers and students. Four teachers and a priest were killed when Philippine troops tried to rescue them. So why not try to buy the Burnhams out alive, and hope we can punish Abu Sayyaf later?
The Defense Department argued against paying ransom for two very compelling reasons. First, Abu Sayyaf's founder, Abubakar Janjalani, fought with Osama bin Laden against the Soviets in the 1980s. Janjalani was killed in a gunfight in 1998, but Abu Sayyaf's connections to al Qaeda remain clear and close. Payment to Abu Sayyaf sends an unmistakable message to al Qaeda that what works in the Philippines will probably work elsewhere. Despite these arguments, our government not only "facilitated" the attempted ransom but also apparently provided the money. These acts conflict directly with President Bush's condemnation of terrorism and cannot be explained in any terms consistent with it. How can we expect other nations to help us stop the flow of money to terrorists when we ourselves are sending it?
The past week has focused the world's attention on Mr. Bush and his doctrine. On September 20, he declared that all nations would have to choose between terror and freedom. There would be, he said, no room in between. But, since Vice President Richard Cheney's tour of Arab nations last month, the fog has settled over Mr. Bush. The president should consider making an address to the nation to reaffirm his commitment against terror. And when he makes this speech, he should make clear to everyone in his administration that no deviation from this commitment will be tolerated. There can be no more ransoming of hostages.

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