A hostage is a person seized or held as security for fulfilling a condition. A hostage taker is defined as a criminal everywhere on this planet, except those corrupt states that take hostages. Viewing a hostage-taking in person, via a screen, or just hearing about one is gut-wrenching. Just thinking about the consequences of those taken hostage is ethically challenging. Writing about hostages, those who take them, and their families are governed by public need, private interest, disgust, and horror. Those taken and their takers are sought out for dramatically different reasons. The hostages are sought because they are innocent. Their takers are guilty because they did the deed. Tragically, some hostage-takers are glorified. That happens when takers and their supporters have no shame; they hate their victims and justify their crimes on political need, and territorial gain.

There are synonyms: captive, prisoner, detainee, internee, pawn, surety, pledge. But even with this sugar coating, living in hostage is a reality suffered by people who never imagined how horrible it is and how deadly it becomes. Those who survive their taking live a dreadful life, always looking over their shoulders. Who is there? Will it happen again? Why did they pick me?  

In the Hamas-Israeli war, the Hamas terrorists captured hundreds of hostages in clear violation of international law. In the process, they raped women, killed children, and wounded thousands. As the videos clearly showed, Hamas terrorists violated the rules of armed combat—they are guilty of a premeditated assumption that when they lost on the battlefield, the hostages would be sold.  “A discussion of the prohibitions on hostage-taking during non-international and international armed conflicts follows. . . Despite media reports mislabeling those Hamas seized as “prisoners of war,” they are “hostages” as a matter of law. The acts that qualify them as hostages violate treaty and customary international law, and persons involved in the hostage-taking have committed war crimes.”[1]

The International Committee of the Red Cross accurately defines hostage-taking:  “The seizure, detention or otherwise holding of a person accompanied by the threat to kill, injure or continue to detain that person in order to compel a third party to do or to abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release, safety, or well-being of the hostage. More than mere detention, it requires an intent to force another person or entity to engage in or refrain from particular acts because of a threat to harm or continue to harm the person being held. The term “hostages” must be interpreted broadly; it can include even soldiers if the hostage-takers have taken them for the purpose of exploiting their detention.”[2]

The October 7, 2023 attack by Hamas was the worst of its several hostage-taking attacks on Israel. It and other jihadist terrorist groups took Israeli hostages in 2006 and 2007. But they were minuscule compared to the 200-plus innocent civilians from many countries taken during the October 7 attack, during which they killed several thousand Israelis.[3]   Hamas has a long and tortured history of extreme violence targeting Israeli civilians, including suicide bombings and rocket attacks. They use various strategies to take Israelis hostage, including cross-border raids and exploiting tunnels to infiltrate Israeli territory from Gaza. They use hostages as bargaining chips for prisoner exchanges and as propaganda tools to gain international attention.[4]

Arguably, this war has more diverse media coverage than any other in recent memory. “The 2023 Israel–Hamas war has been extensively covered by various media outlets around the world. This coverage has been diverse, spanning from traditional news outlets to various social media platforms, and comprises a wide variety of perspectives and narratives. Mainstream media extensively reports on the conflict, emphasizing the human toll and challenges faced by journalists and news platforms. However, distinguishing fact from fiction proved difficult due to the conflict’s intricacies.”[5]

Hamas and its victims come from diametrically opposed political and religious In some cases Hamas is viewed through a partisan lens. For example, the BBC was criticized by journalists and others for using the term “militants” over “terrorists” to refer to Hamas members.[6]  But almost everyone except Hamas realizes that holding over 200 civilians and soldiers as hostages is without precedent. No other political organization or militant structure has exploited the value of human life as Hamas has.[7]

The long list of Hamas’s tyranny includes its malignant bombing and seizing of Israeli citizens for the express taking hostages. “It uses them as human shields. It could release [and] stop using civilians as human shields and stop using civilian infrastructure to stage and launch terrorist attacks. It could lay down its arms, surrender the leaders who are responsible for the slaughter, the torture, the rapes of October 7th. Hamas could renounce its stated goal of eliminating Israel, killing Jews, and repeating the atrocities of October 7th again and again and again.”[8]

Hamas is not the only regime in the world to adopt hostage-taking. “Foreign governments now surpass terrorist and militant groups as the predominant hostage-takers of U.S. nationals around the globe. Nineteen publicly known U.S. nationals are being held by militants and other criminal groups, while at least 43 are being wrongfully detained abroad as state-sponsored hostage cases[9].  The rise in foreign governments wrongfully detaining Americans to extract concessions, policy changes or prisoner exchanges from the United States is dramatic.[10] Experts say China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela are currently the most active hostage-taking states.[11]

Hostage-taking has forced democratic countries to invent political strategies called hostage diplomacy. “In the last six years alone, Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have made substantial concessions — offering prisoner swaps, diplomatic recognition, cash payment, and withdrawal of American troops — to bring imprisoned Americans home from Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Turkey. These prisoners might be caught up in broader, ongoing negotiations, like former Washington Post Tehran Bureau Chief Jason Rezaian and other Americans who gained their freedom as part of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. More often, however, states have targeted and arrested foreigners for use as standalone diplomatic leverage. Though exercised through a state’s criminal justice system, these arrests aim to extort concessions, much like kidnapping would. Hostage diplomacy is the taking of hostages under the guise of national law for diplomatic purposes.”[12]

This blog is about ethical writing not the politics of hostage-taking. The American Philosophical Association advances widely held ethical and moral values at national and international levels. It headlined its November 6, 2023, blog with this headline: Who Is Innocent? Thinking Morally Amidst the War Between Israel and Hamas. “The conflict between Israel and Hamas embodies a complex interplay of historical and political factors alongside philosophical and ethical considerations. The visible manifestations of violence are underpinned by profound disagreements on the nature of justice, the essence of statehood, the legitimacy of resistance versus occupation, and the notion of victimhood. Hamas views Palestinians as victims of colonial oppression, justifying their violent resistance as a means of opposition. Conversely, Israel perceives itself as a victim too, justifying its illegal occupation and territorial expansion.”[13]

A pivotal issue is the ongoing effort to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. Embedded in this issue is the ethical assertion that acknowledges the “innocence” of those not directly participating in hostilities, emphasizing their moral and legal right to protection. By doing so, it urges the actors of war to rise above their immediate objectives and recognize the broader moral landscape in which they operate.[14]

Hostage-taking is a war crime prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. Its core purpose is to use horrific violence to accomplish a political end. Hostage takers face the legal and reputational risks of breaking international law. But hostage takers, primarily terrorists and authoritarian governments pay the price because they always benefit by the sheer violence of the taking; ransom payments, coercing prisoner swaps, embarrassing or humiliating their adversary, who are rarely military and often simply ordinary people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.[15]

The clearly defined elements in the Geneva Conventions drive the ethics and morals of reporting on, commenting on, and writing about hostage-taking. Tell the truth. Call it what it is, horrific criminal conduct that must not be practiced anywhere in the world. Writers should use great care in asking questions of victims, their families, or the details of their experiences. No visual or video should be broadcast that could ultimately expose hostages to undue harm or future violence of any kind. Writers must be vigilant to call out hostage takers as villains and criminals, despite their claims of an eye for an eye or as retribution for past conduct by governments engaged in political wars.[16]  

At a minimum, writing about hostage-taking should be morally sound and ethically driven. Journalists and other media operators should not converse with hostage takers if those conversations could bring harm to hostages or their families. Journalists should handle imagery of hostages being held extremely carefully and avoid usage or transmission of images that will likely haunt them and readers forever. Media, writ large, should abide requests from victims and their families to withhold any information or images that will make their lives more horrific by exposure.[17]

Hostage-taking, hostage compensation, and hostage diplomacy vary dramatically in harm, loss, cost, and unforeseen consequences. Just as doctors are mandated to do no harm, and lawyers are mandated to advance the rule of law, writers should withhold their content as a matter of conscience and morality, unless and until what they write will not harm those they are writing about.

On December 6th, 2023, MST BBC filed a detailed report titled, “Hamas Hostages: Stories of the People Taken From Israel.[18] That report profiles recently released people by showing their photographs. There is a small sample of the 200+ hostages taken by Hamas.  It profiles them by name, home country, family members, and reveals biographical information of each hostage. This group has been released by Hamas. There is no information in the press release about the source of the information. The nagging question is whether BBC’s press release meets ethical standards. It may have. Or given the transient nature of the Hamas war on Israel or Israel’s response, whether this particular group of hostages will suffer more harm by their new BBC worldwide notoriety is an ethical question. Did the hostages that were released and profiled by the BBC know their faces and family information would be broadcast worldwide? Did they give permission to BBC to make their stories known to Hamas, and other terrorist organizations? Did the release of this information put them at risk? Do they understand the consequences? Will they regret giving their stories to the BBC? How long will their stories be newsworthy? Is Hamas reading the coverage? Does anyone care?

One hostage said, “We are in a horror movie.” How will that horror story end?

[1] https://lieber.westpoint.edu/hostage-taking-law-armed-conflict/

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.npr.org/2023/11/28/1215353901/hostages-hamas-israel-gaza-palestinian-prisoners

[4] https://www.ajc.org/news/what-is-known-about-israeli-hostages-taken-by-hamas

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_coverage_of_the_2023_Israel

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Heather Cox Richardson. Letters from an American [email protected] November 30, 2023. And see, https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-and-israeli-president-isaac-herzog-before-their-meeting-7/

[9] Cynthia a Loertscher, Research director. James W. Foley Legacy Foundation. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/interactive/2021/hostage-taking-americans-foreign-governments/  

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://tnsr.org/2021/11/caught-between-giants-hostage-diplomacy-and-negotiation-strategy-for-middle-powers/

[13] https://blog.apaonline.org/2023/11/06/who-is-innocent-thinking-morally-amidst-the-war-between-israel-and-hamas/   And see,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] https://www.csis.org/analysis/why-gaza-hostage-crisis-different

[18] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-67053011

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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