Monday, August 18, 2003

How much ransom?

The news blackout over the negotiations to free 14 European hostages who have been held captive by Islamists in the Sahara for 5 months dodges the essential question: is ransom being paid for their release? It would appear so:

Two German television stations, ARD and n-tv, said a handover had been due to take place on Sunday but did not occur for unspecified reasons. ARD said the handover could take place on Monday. The German Foreign Ministry declined comment. Another German television station, ZDF, said the hostages had ''very probably'' been released already and that ransom money had been handed over, but diplomats in Mali said the report was wrong. The German Foreign Ministry declined comment again.

Algerian commandos were said to have rescued 17 other European hostages in May, but Belmont Club linked to French news sources which alleged that ransom had also been paid. This is a replay of the Philippine Sipadan hostage-taking which funnelled millions of dollars into the hands of the Abu Sayaf terrorist group, transforming them overnight from an underfunded band of criminals to one of the most powerful gangs in Mindanao. The policy of Europe appears to be the payment of ransom. It is tempting to excoriate the Europeans as craven wimps, but the emasculation of continental will and military capability are the true root causes of their policy of appeasement.

In the years following US independence, the Barbary Pirates of the North African coast began to seize American shipping, which was no longer protected by the British Royal Navy. These Muslims reserved the right to take Americans as slaves unless the US paid them an annual tribute of $25,000 in additional to a large initial downpayment. America agreed: in 1784 Congress appropriated $80,000 as initial tribute to the Barbary States. But by 1791, the Muslims had upped the price and demanded a million dollars for the release of 115 sailors whom they had captured, in addition to more annual gifts. Thomas Jefferson, who was by then the President, proclaimed that the policy of ransom payment was unsustainable and declared that the Barbary demands  "admitted but one answer. I sent a small squadron of frigates into the Mediterranean." The infant republic abandoned its policy of appeasement and waged an unremitting campaign against the North African pirates. After Edward Preble, John Rogers and William Eaton reduced the Barbary fleet and had bombarded and threatened to take Tripoli, the pasha sought an end to hostilities in exchange for a final settlement. A period of uneasy confrontation continued until Bainbridge and Decatur crushed the Barbary pirates for good.

The incident is now largely forgotten except for two surviving linguistic fossils: the first being the the declaration of Ambassador Charles C. Pinkney that America was willing to pay "millions for defense, sir, but not one cent for tribute", and the second being the first line of the Marine Corps Hymn: "from the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli", which recalls the Leatherneck's amphibious campaign there. But it should be remembered. Today we are accustomed to thinking of the United States as a nation unyielding to tyranny. Yet the fact is that once it paid money in fear and without Thomas Jefferson and the bold commodores of the United States Navy the nation would have continued paying blood money to the pashas of North Africa for an indefinite period.

Europe may be old in history; but it is young in defiance. There is no reason why Belgians, Frenchmen, Swiss and Germans must pay craven extortion to bandits in the Sahara desert other than the fact that they have not yet brought forth their Thomas Jefferson. And they will, if they want him.