The Morality of Negotiating with Kidnappers Journalist Jill Carroll, kidnapped in Iraq five weeks ago, remains a hostage. Her kidnappers have pledged to kill Carroll on February 26 unless the United States meets their demands to release Iraqi female prisoners. Madeleine Brand talks with philosopher Peter Singer, who has written about Carroll's kidnapping, about the morality of negotiating with kidnappers.

The Morality of Negotiating with Kidnappers

The Morality of Negotiating with Kidnappers

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Journalist Jill Carroll, kidnapped in Iraq five weeks ago, remains a hostage. Her kidnappers have pledged to kill Carroll on February 26 unless the United States meets their demands to release Iraqi female prisoners. Madeleine Brand talks with philosopher Peter Singer, who has written about Carroll's kidnapping, about the morality of negotiating with kidnappers.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In Iraq, police today said gunman kidnapped a wealthy banker and his son from the family's West Baghdad on home on Thursday. At the same time, Iraqi officials said they'll investigate Shiite-led militias operated by the Interior Ministry. Some Sunni Arabs blame those militias for the murder and kidnapping of Iraqis.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The American journalist Jill Carroll is still being held by kidnappers in Iraq. It's been more than a month since she was taken. The kidnappers are demanding that the U.S. free Iraqi female prisoners, and the U.S. has said it will not give in to kidnappers' demands because that would only encourage more kidnappings.

BRAND: For Peter Singer, that raises a moral dilemma, and he wrote an op-ed about it in the L.A. Times this week. Peter Singer is a bioethics professor at Princeton University and he joined us from his native Australia to talk about that op-ed. I asked him if the U.S. position, never negotiating with kidnappers, is morally defensible.

Professor PETER SINGER (Bioethics, Princeton University): Well, I really wanted to raise the question. What had surprised me is that it doesn't seem like it's being discussed very much as to whether the U.S. should or should not release the women prisoners that the kidnappers are demanding be released. I think that, you know, in saying that one should not yield to kidnappers because it encourages more kidnapping, that's a reasonable thing to say. But I don't think it's the end of the discussion. I think we should say, well, yes, on the one hand you could say that. On the other hand, there is a human life at stake here. We surely value that very highly. Are we so confident and are we so sure that it will encourage further kidnappings? Kidnappings are already taking place. I think we ought to be discussing that.

BRAND: But as you wrote in your op-ed, it's not necessarily just an academic question. You can look to the country of Columbia, which has a virtual epidemic of kidnappings, and there, and precisely because ransom demands have been met.

Professor SINGER: Yes. No, it's not at all an academic question. Of course it's a very urgent, practical question. But you would have to ask whether the circumstances that have caused that epidemic of kidnapping in Columbia are similar in this situation, whether we have circumstances where, like in Columbia there's really not sufficiently effective law and order in many regions.

Now, of course you could say that's true in Iraq as well, but on the other hand, there are questions about whether U.S. personnel have to be in Iraq, what precautions they need to take. All of those issues need to be looked at.

So I did mention the Columbian situation in my article because I wanted to give credit to that view that says we shouldn't deal with kidnapping because the consequences are so bad. But I'm not convinced in this case that it actually really is so clear that it would have these consequences, that that outweighs the great value of doing what you can to save Jill Carroll's life.

BRAND: I wonder if you can answer this question, and it may be too abstract. But is there a line that you wouldn't cross when it comes to saving one person's life in this case, Jill Carroll's life. Is there something that the kidnappers would demand that you'd say, well, absolutely not, it's too great a problem and in this out case would outweigh the benefits of saving a single life?

Professor SINGER: Certainly. There would be many such things. Depending how you think about the whole military mission in Iraq, the invasion of Iraq, of course I happen to think that it was a terrible mistake. But if you think that that was a worthwhile activity, then, and was important for the future of Iraq, then of course if the kidnappers said that the price of Jill Carroll's life was to withdraw from Iraq, you wouldn't do that. Even given that it was a mistake, we might still now think that a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would imperil the lives of many Iraqis until we've helped them to establish some sort of law and order. So there would be things like that, where you thought that there was a pretty clear probability that many more lives would be lost, that you would not do.

BRAND: What if one of the President's daughters were kidnapped, were the victim in this case?

Professor SINGER: This is an interesting question to ask, because obviously then we would be having a big national debate. I mean, it's inconceivable that in those circumstances we would not say, should we stick with the rule of not dealing with terrorists or kidnappers or should we not? But because Jill Carroll is not the daughter of famous people, it seems that we have rather, I would say, too easily just accepted this idea of not dealing with kidnappers and seem to be prepared to let her die. So I think that raising the question of what if it were the President's daughter is a good way of saying, look, you know, really, she's someone's daughter, everyone is of equal importance, the President's daughter is not really more important in the overall scheme of things than Jill Carroll or anyone else, so we should treat her in a way as if she were the President's daughter and have that debate that we would be having if that were the case.

BRAND: Peter Singer is a bioethics professor at Princeton University. He joined us from his native Australia, and Peter Singer, thank you very much.

Professor SINGER: Thanks, Madeleine. It was good to talk to you.

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