If you’ve watched any particular action film in the past two decades that dealt with foreign criminals, it would be easy to point out that the American government does ‘not negotiate with terrorists’. No matter the stakes, this doesn’t happen. The argument is simple; the standards of liberal democracy are founded on the principle that it does not give into violence, and terrorists must not be rewarded for using it. Otherwise, a precedent could be set and the lack of a universally accepted international ban on terrorism could in turn lead to the strengthening of terrorist organizations and their legitimacy. So instead, the United States and other nations resort to their own methods of violence, that being military might.
But where does it all end? Given that these organizations do an uncanny job of replacing their top officials when previous ones are victim to some sort of ‘military operation,’ the conclusive result and ultimate objective of total eradication of these terrorist insurgencies seems almost impossible. We see this in the Middle East with Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, among others.
The more prevalent issue when it comes to negotiating with terrorists in recent years is that of hostage situations. The most salient hostage crisis in recent memory was a subject of great emotional hardship for a nation, one whose relationship to terrorism has endured a history of many lows and only a handful of successes. I’m talking about Israel and their recent negotiations with the terrorist organization Hamas; negotiations that resulted in Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit’s freedom at the cost of the liberation of 1,027 Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons. Schalit was captured on June 25th, during the 2006 Israeli war with Lebanon, and remained imprisoned for 6 years.
The Israeli government response to hostage crises is usually that of retaliatory military rescue operations (Operation Entebbe is one example). Not knowing where Schalit was being held, as well as knowing such an operation could endanger the boy’s life, Israel’s only answer was negotiation.
Many of the former prisoners were known to be Palestinian militants, and many were culpable for having ‘Israeli blood’ on their hands. While some have praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the ‘courage and leadership’ it took to follow through with the negotiation, others protested Israel’s decision that could consequently endanger possibly scores of more Israeli lives at the cost of only one.
In ‘The Higher Law’, Thoreau discussed the inherent complicity that exists within civil government. A multitude of laws, that seem OK on the periphery, are wholly unjustifiable. Thoreau said concerning government injustice, “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go…but if it of such a nature that it requires you to be an agent of that injustice, then I say, break the law” (73). Simply put, when presented with an immoral law, it is permissible to break that law if you see yourself as being immoral by adhering to it.
Benjamin Netanyahu, along with his fellow Israeli citizens, felt they were being complicit in the face of an immoral law, an unjust one. The ‘law’ of not negotiating with terrorists is itself a higher law. By coming to the defense of its citizen Gilad, the Israeli government stayed true to the higher law of its own moral code. They put themselves above a law they saw as unreasonable and at the expense of their own lives, rebelled against it. In effect, they triumphed as a nation over adversity.
The arguably radical reasoning of Henry David Thoreau would be in line with Netanyahu’s decision. I don’t see Thoreau as being an advocate of negotiating with terrorists. They are not his fellow citizens, although these rebels do pose a threat to their future livelihood. But the issue of a hostage crisis is a special one. In effect, Thoreau believed that to fully ignore the plight of our own is to be corrupt. The state, by not recognizing the worth of even one citizen, has failed its community.
“Is there not a sort of bled shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds an everlasting death” -Thoreau 77
In many ways, Gilad Schalit was an immortal figure. His capture invoked a rallying cry for the Israeli populace to voice their views either for or against the toleration of negotiating with terrorists, and to come together as citizens for the life of one of their own.
At the same time, would Thoreau agree that the life of one citizen is equal to the lives of hundreds? It’s a difficult question to answer. What is known, however, is that when Schalit was released, a revolution was indeed accomplished. The stigma of his capture resonated in the minds of Israelis for years, and it could not be forgotten while Gilad was being held captive.