Should ransom have been paid to release American hostage in Uganda?

The US has made its public position clear for decades — we do not pay ransom for abductions of Americans, pour encourager les autres. Sometimes we do so on the down-low, or sometimes on a more spectacular basis as with the $400 million payment to Iran in exchange for imprisoned Americans. (And not even all of them.) Mike Pompeo reiterated that policy days ago after the kidnapping of American tourist Kimberly Sue Endicott in Uganda and the demand from her captors for a half-million dollars in ransom.

Endicott was freed last night after the safari company coughed up the cash — or at least that’s the story for the moment:

Ugandan police claimed that they had rescued Endicott and her driver, but the New York Times reports that the kidnappers released the pair after getting their money:

An American woman and her Ugandan guide who were kidnapped while on safari this past week have been freed after a ransom was paid, according to officials with the safari company with which they were traveling.

The Ugandan police said in a statement posted on Twitter Sunday that the police and security forces “have rescued” the two kidnapping victims. One official with the safari company, Wild Frontiers, who asked not to be named, said the two were currently “enjoying a square meal and hot shower” at a wilderness camp in Uganda run by the company.

They were dropped off at a point near the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday, the official said. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to provide details about the circumstances of the release.

The official said he did not know the identity of the kidnappers and that Wild Frontiers paid the ransom.

Everyone’s happy to see Endicott freed, from the top down:

American policy doesn’t control what a Ugandan tour company decides to do about abductions, if in fact that’s what happened. It’s certainly possible that the company decided to cough up the cash in order to salvage its business, but that’s a lot of cash for any business to get on short notice, let alone a regional tour company. What happens the next time these kidnappers or others want a quick cash infusion? Wild Frontiers might have been able to scrape that cash together once, maybe, but it won’t be able to do so on demand.

Paying the ransom creates a powerful incentive for others to commit the same crime. The Iranian ransom payment certainly had that effect, the Washington Post noted at the time, which is why the US has had a policy forbidding even negotiations with captors and terrorists. That policy has been followed inconsistently, however, a point that families of the abducted have long criticized. Barack Obama finally issued an executive order barring the prosecution of families for pursuing private negotiations with captors of Americans abroad, but kept in place the US public policy forbidding any negotiations so as to prevent those incentives from expanding in both scope and number.

Endicott’s safety is worth celebrating. At the same time, we need to know whether we played a part in paying the ransom, and whether our no-negotiation policy is still as murky and arbitrary as it became over the last decade or so. It doesn’t take much for “an isolated incident” to turn into a continuing problem, especially if people throw money at it to make it disappear.