"Will we let Jill Carroll be killed?"

A bioethicist questions the "consensus" that we don't deal with terrorists.

By Lynn Harris
Published February 15, 2006 6:59PM (EST)

Reporter Jill Carroll has been held in Iraq since Jan. 7. "Please just do whatever they want," she said in the most recent video released by her captors. "Give them whatever they want as quickly as possible. There is a very short time. Please do it fast. That's all."

In today's Los Angeles Times, Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer raises an issue that's been on my mind as well: "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," he suggests -- even when the threats, as in Carroll's case, are more than credible.

Singer cites the example of kidnapping in Colombia, which has become epidemic, since ransoms are routinely paid, as "just another way of making money, more lucrative than mugging," he writes. "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?" he asks, noting that Israel has participated in prisoner exchanges. "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 kidnappers' publicized demands -- the release of five female prisoners held by the U.S. in Iraq, none of whom is, as far as we know, "a significant insurgent leader or someone whose release would pose a major threat" -- seems to Singer "a small price to pay for saving the life of a young woman."

"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," he writes. "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."

What do you think?

Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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