Will we let Jill Carroll be killed?

PETER SINGER is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and the author of "Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics."

JILL CARROLL, the 28-year-old freelance reporter for the Christian Science Monitor who has been held by kidnappers in Iraq since Jan. 7, appeared on a video last week.

“Please just do whatever they want,” she said. “Give them whatever they want as quickly as possible. There is a very short time. Please do it fast. That’s all.”

What the kidnappers want is for the United States to free the female prisoners it is holding in Iraq, and they have made it clear that if the U.S. does not do so, Carroll will be killed. Given that other captives have been killed by Iraqi kidnappers, there can be little doubt that the threat to Carroll’s life is real. Why then has there been so little discussion of whether we should meet the demands? With a human life at stake, is it right not even to debate her case?


Perhaps no one is talking about what we should do because there is a consensus that we should never yield to blackmail or threats of extortion.

A look at Colombia, where more than 22,000 people have been kidnapped in the last decade, suggests what can go wrong when payment of ransom becomes the norm. There, kidnapping has become just another way of making money, more lucrative than mugging because the kidnappers get an average of $20,000 for each hostage taken. Apart from the economic cost of the ransoms, and the cost of the increased security, there also has been a considerable loss of innocent human life because many hostages have been murdered, either when they resisted their kidnappers or when their families could not or did not pay.

It certainly seems likely that things would’ve been better if, right from the start of the wave of Colombian kidnappings, no one had paid a ransom; the kidnappers would have realized there was nothing to be gained.

BUT IS THE RULE against dealing with kidnappers really absolute? Is it so black and white that we shouldn’t even bother to discuss it?

Israel, which has a lot of experience in dealing with terrorists, doesn’t seem to think so. In January 2004, for instance, Israel released about 30 prisoners in exchange for the release by Hezbollah of Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. Nor was that the first time Israel had made such a deal.

Which of us would not seek to meet the kidnappers’ demands if Carroll were our daughter? If one of President Bush’s daughters were in a similar situation, do we believe he would not be thinking about whether to meet the demands? Indeed, wouldn’t we think worse of him as a human being if he did not?

Admittedly, the duties of a president may override the duties of a father. The leader of a nation sometimes has to stand firm, and he may even be required to sacrifice his children for the good of the nation. But of course that would be a last resort and should not be done unless the stakes are truly momentous. Are the stakes that momentous in this case? They don’t seem to be.

The kidnapper’s demands, if indeed they are limited to the release of the five female prisoners being held by the military in Iraq, seem relatively modest, a small price to pay for saving the life of a young woman.

As far as we know, none of these female prisoners is a significant insurgent leader or someone whose release would pose a major threat. What’s more, the U.S. released five other women on Jan. 26 (although it was careful to say that the release had nothing to do with the kidnappers’ demands).

A spokesperson said the U.S. military and the Iraqi government had “processed the women’s cases according to normal procedures and determined they did not need to be held any longer.” Perhaps if the proceedings on the remaining five cases were accelerated, it might turn out that they do not need to be held any longer either. It would be a terrible irony if that conclusion were reached after Carroll had been executed.

It is not obvious to me that it would be wrong to release the female prisoners. It may well be the right thing to do, quite independently of the pressing moral requirement that we do everything possible to save Carroll’s life.

But then, I don’t know enough about the grounds on which these women are being held. The Bush administration could at least tell us that. Then we could begin to have an informed debate on what we should do. But as Carroll has said, we need to do it fast.