Should we talk to Al Qaeda?


If the Obama administration thinks it’s cool to talk to North Korea and Iran, why not Al Qaeda too? Over at the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens seems to think we’ve all gone a little wobbly and need a reminder why it’s bad practice to talk to the bad guys.

Imagine an anonymous, virtual association of murderers and rapists who promise, via an Internet manifesto, to desist from wrongdoing altogether in exchange for immunity from prosecution and a yearly stipend of, say, $15 billion, to be deposited in a numbered bank account and divided equitably among the association’s members.

Practically speaking that’s a pretty good deal, sparing the public both grief and money. But the first objection is that no collection of murderers and rapists could ever be trusted to keep their word. Why? Because it is in the nature of such people to be untrustworthy.

This goes almost without saying. So why is it any less true of sociopaths who happen also to have political grievances? Or the sociopaths who run entire states? From Stalin to Hitler to Kim to Saddam, tyrants don’t exactly have an excellent record of honoring their treaty commitments.

But the deeper argument against making a deal with the hypothetical Murder and Rape Association isn’t empirical. It stems from the fact that the concessions the Association has to offer aren’t properly theirs to give. Rather, they are a form of extortion.

In the real world, this is what the Syrians have spent the past several decades doing, extracting concessions from the West by winning the release of hostages taken by groups they secretly support, or by promising to rein in Iraq-bound jihadis to whom they also give sanctuary. Iran does likewise by bargaining over a nuclear program that it has no right to possess. Kim’s talents for extortion are legendary, as were Yasser Arafat’s.

In America, we prosecute extortion rackets. We don’t recognize, as an unalterable fact, the rights of local mafias to hold neighborhoods hostage. We do so because we know that to do otherwise is to import the law of the jungle into civil society.

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