Molly Guinness

Hostage taking has paid in the past — but it has won Isis nothing

The three recent beheadings by the so-called Islamic State have been peculiarly, barbarically pointless. IS was asking western governments to leave them be to wreak havoc across the Middle East; it was an unrealistic demand. But rather than toning down their behaviour to a level perhaps tolerable, they simply executed their hostages. By murdering two American journalists and a British aid worker IS have demonstrated to the world that they don’t mind killing people, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, but they haven’t won any PR points, let alone any concessions.

In 1995, Robin Harris pointed out that, whatever we might like to believe, hostage taking pays.

Western liberalism is the creed of happy endings. Western liberals endlessly scan public affairs at home and abroad for evidence that virtue is rewarded and crime does not pay; and when it appears that crime pays very well indeed, they find consolation in the thought that the criminal’s reputation or ’cause’ has been ‘damaged’.

Actually, he pointed out, recent Bosnian-Serb hostage takers weren’t interested in world opinion and in fact the kidnapping had ensured the end of Nato air strikes against them.

Hostage-taking has therefore paid — just as has Chechen hostage-taking by achieving suspension of Russian campaigning against them indeed, just as most international crimes against norms of morality and law pay. It is simply that we in the West like to convince ourselves that they do not. Genocide pays — almost by definition, since the nation or race destroyed has no chance of reparation or justice. Ethnic cleansing pays. The now nationally homogeneous European countries of Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic are the result of past successful policies of ethnic cleansing and persecution of minorities, accompanied by revision of frontiers. Terrorism pays. From the Palestinian West Bank to South Africa it is the leaders of terrorist groups who have eventually won power by a strategy of violence against civilians accompanying offers of political negotiation.

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