Madness of Paying Ransoms; Christmas Cards and Skulls

The New York Times ran a piece Dec. 28 headlined "The Cost of the U.S. Ban on Paying for Hostages,'' which I took as an implied defense of paying ransom to murderous groups such as the Islamic State in order to free kidnapped people from rich countries with big media.

Of course, these stories of Americans (such as New Hampshire's James Foley) and other Westerners who go to the Mideast for humanitarian, journalistic and other reasons and then are kidnapped by the likes of IS are horrific. But for the U.S. to pay ransom to get them back will create many more such cases.

The basic problem with stories like the Times's is that they divert attention from the broad duty of destroying a depraved group that would, with pleasure, kill millions of people if it could, to tragic individual human-interest stories. In this diversion, it puts many more people than the hostages in peril, whatever the heartwarming pictures of paid-for kidnap victims being reunited with their families.

David S. Cohen, U.S. Treasury under secretary for terrorism and finance intelligence, nicely summarized where the ransom money goes:

{To} help fund the full range of {terrorists'} activities, including recruiting and indoctrinating new members, paying salaries, establishing training camps, acquiring weapons and communications gear, staging deadly attacks, and helping to support the next generation of violent extremist groups.

A more helpful piece ran in the Times a few months earlier, entitled very accurately, "Paying ransoms, Europe bankrolls Qaeda terror."

With the exception of the British, Western Europeans have all too often fueled terror by paying off these bloodthirsty criminals.

Why not just ship the Islamic State weapons and/or give them wages (and health insurance and pensions) instead of paying ransom? Save time.

Paying ransom to terrorists kills many, many more people than it saves. People know this, but...


Every Christmas week I send "Happy New Year" cards to people who have just sent us holiday cards. If they took the time to send us cards then we should reply.

Thus you can reconnect with a lot of people, if only once a year. In doing so, you stay in the fabric of a wider life than you might have without the card exchange. Going through them is a sort of forced review of recent history at the micro-level. And then there's the reminder of mortality, as these cards report more and more deaths to you as the years roll by, along, of course, with the births. Then there's the obituary by omission: Cards from certain people just stop coming. These pieces of brightly colored paper can be like those models of skulls that priests and scholars used to keep on their work tables to focus their minds.

Along with the cards comes the knee-jerk reaction to review the year past and make resolutions about the next. My central resolution is always, as Thoreau advised, to "Simplify, simplify." (As a bachelor and grand moocher on friends and neighbors, it was easy for him.)

But simplification is far from simple in 21st Century America, and the machine upon which I'm typing this is one reason. It offers endless distraction.

"Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries," Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th Century, "and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries." Peter Kreeft, a philosopher/theologian, wrote: "We want to complexify our lives. ... We want to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very things we complain about. For if we had leisure, we would look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it.'' (Or maybe luxurious leisure can fill it!)

Some people email their holiday cards -- to simplify and/or to save money. But these transmissions obviously lack the emotional weight and resonance of physical cards. (By the way, scientists say that reading on paper supports more memory of text than does reading on a screen.) And emails are too easy to delete. A really good paper card may be kept for years, perhaps in a scrapbook.

The Internet won't destroy the paper-card business anytime soon.

Robert Whitcomb ( is a Providence-based editor and writer. He is a partner/adviser at Cambridge Management Group (, a healthcare-sector consultancy, oversees, is a fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, a former Providence Journal editorial-page editor and a former International Herald Tribune financial editor.