Should governments pay ransoms to terrorist organizations that unjustly kidnap their citizens? The United Kingdom and the United States refuse to negotiate with terrorist groups that kidnap and threaten to kill their people. In contrast, continental European countries, such as France and Germany, have regularly paid ransoms to rescue hostages. Who is right? This debate has raged in the public domain in recent years, but no sustained attempt has been made to subject the matter to philosophical scrutiny. This article explores this issue, focusing on the case of ransom payments to terrorist organizations. It contends that the state’s duty to protect its citizens from murder grounds a defeasible obligation to pay ransoms. It considers the objection that a policy of paying ransoms endangers citizens abroad by increasing the likelihood of future kidnappings, and it explains why this objection is not sufficiently weighty. It then identifies a more powerful objection: namely, that a state’s payment of ransoms makes the state complicit in the serious injustices that its ransom payments fund. It concludes that unless states can mitigate their contributions to such injustices, paying ransoms is wrong.
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