Paying ransom should be prosecuted as a crime

Kidnappers and pirates do it for money, in particular for a payment of ransom. Blackbeard wanted the stuff in the ships he seized, but today’s pirates cannot practically sell a cargo of almost anything, nor the ship itself, and the crews’ watches and cellphones don’t amount to anything in this business. (A piracy enterprise in some waters, directed at private yachts, is more like Blackbeard’s, but it’s a different problem and probably involves different pirates.)

The victims are the family members and the shipowners who pay, and of course the kidnappee and crews put at risk, including risk of death. Unfortunately, paying ransom causes kidnapping and piracy: the only thing that keeps these enterprises going is the expectation of success at collecting ransoms, so there are lots of other victims, and they are victims not only of future kidnappers and pirates, but also of today’s compliant targets who signal in the most persuasive way that these crimes pay.

For piracy of the Horn of Africa type, I think it’s a fairly easy call, though administration is daunting given the international ownership and registration of ships: paying ransom needs to be a criminal offense and the punishment should include at least seizure of the payers’ assets, including any other ships in any port. A shipowner who will put world shipping at risk of piracy by paying ransom is simply unfit to operate in that industry, an industry on which lives and commerce around the world depend. And I say this knowing that some hostage crewmembers may be put to death by pirates testing the new rules, because many more lives depend on a functioning merchant marine (lots of people in the world, for example, will not eat if food can’t be delivered on a ship, never mind medicine, tools, etc.).

For kidnapping, it’s a very tough call, because the natural love and affection in families is a precious resource and the desire of parents to do anything to protect their children is an unalloyed good thing, admirable and understandable. But if someone held a gun on my child and demanded as the price of her life that I shoot three strangers, I hope I would refuse, and if one of my kids were kidnapped, I hope I would be strong enough not to pay up. So I come out in the same place, because of all the children who haven’t been kidnapped yet, but will be to the degree that kidnapping is perceived to pay off.

We have to grit our teeth and do everything we can to obstruct desperate relatives from doing what they feel they must, harsh as it feels when the current victim has a name and a photograph playing with the family dog, and the future victims are statistical. I think this includes criminal prosecution after the fact, and court-ordered freezing of bank accounts on the spot. It wouldn’t hurt if kidnap episodes in crime shows had the cops enabling payoffs less and explaining the principles of this post to families more. It’s unfair and outrageous to land on, of all people, kidnap victims already profoundly injured, with an obligation to incur risk to their loved ones on behalf of strangers and their loved ones, but the unfairness and injustice is at the feet of the kidnappers.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.