Valor, and The Better Part of It

There are some things that should be too obvious to be missed by nearly everyone, and here is one of them:  the only villains of the Afghan hostage crisis are the Taliban.  It may be human nature to seek out demons, heroes, and martyrs, including phantom ones.  South Korea’s masters of public manipulation have certainly offered the South Korean people a wide choice of villains, and that  choice occasionally even includes the Taliban. 

As for heroes, I certainly don’t see any, and that includes the hostages, including the two who were released today.  They say they came to help, and I don’t question their sincerity.  But given the history of the Taliban and the South Korean government, it’s unlikely that the Taliban let them go for free or that the South Korean government was too principled to pay.  If so, we can confidently  say this mission to Talibanland — and the  unlikely relationships it created —  hurt much more than  it helped, beginning  with the very people it was meant to help. 

[Update:   How depressing and predictable.  The Korea Herald, via GI Korea,  quotes unnamed sources who say that the ROK government paid  “a  huge ransom.”  So how many American soldiers or Afghan civilians do you suppose will be killed with the TNT and nails the  South Korean government’s money  is buying as we speak?  Now, if there’s one thing that allies aren’t supposed to do, it’s  paying people  who kill  your soldiers and help other people to attack your cities.   Still, this is only incrementally worse than all South Korea has done to  aid America’s enemies recently, chiefly North Korea.  South Korea, though protected by thousands of  other U.S. soldiers, has even  declared itself neutral.   Korea can choose to be neutral.  It is we who are fools to make expensive  protectorates of neutral nations and call them allies.]

The hostages almost certainly didn’t think through these likely consequences of their journey, but their failure to think through  those consequences separates this mission  from other dangerous missions by Christian missionaries that  are having  an overwhelmingly positive, humanitarian, and liberalizing effect on our world.  This time, there is a long list of losers, starting with the hostages and  the church  that sent them.   Korea’s  “netizens,” faithfully representing the  most repulsive aspects of their society,  have have  spat venom  at them from the beginning.  Some have  openly wished for their deaths. 

Because it sensibly opposes the rewarding of terrorism, America  has become the predictable  target of an election-year  blame campaign by some South Korean media and politicians.  This campaign  may be having  its intended effect.  The New York Times  reports that “[i]n a survey conducted over the weekend,  … a majority of South Koreans believed that Washington’s policy of not negotiating with the terrorists was ‘irresponsible.'”  In fact, our policy is not to give “concessions” to terrorists,  meaning the survey already betrays a degree of bias, although I doubt whether  that subtle distinction would change the result much.   I was unable to find any additional information about the survey, but if generally  accurate, it reflects an extraordinarily selfish and short-sighted perspective for a nation that  owes its  freedom, prosperity, and existence to another  international intervention (though South Korea’s contribution to this one has been minimal).  I have to wonder if some of the same people who have displayed such malice and venom toward the hostages would let terrorists go free to kill again  for their release. 

As a result of the current goverment’s subtle fanning of such sentiments though its public statements, and the less subtle  hyperbole of its supporters,  South Korea is another loser.  It is now taking a modest but well-deserved beating in the American press and blogs, and here is one excellent example:

This has turned, as most events do by seven degrees of separation or less, into the anti-U.S., anti-Bush blame-a-thon. When it became clear that the Korean negotiations weren’t doing a heck of a lot, Koreans began blaming the U.S. for not intervening by either “making” the Afghans hand over the Taliban fighters – encouraging Afghanistan to toss the lion a T-bone and fervently hope he doesn’t crave any more meat – or otherwise rescuing the hostages.

So when we weren’t doing enough to solve their mess, Koreans began protesting outside the U.S. embassy in Seoul.

This must-read piece goes on to quote “Comrade” Chung Dong-Young, who is now exploiting the misery of the hostages to elevate himself from well-deserved obscurity  to spokesmanship for his country’s  constituency of  the self-centered, cowardly, and irredeemably stupid.  It concludes:

No one forced the missionaries to slip into a war zone, or their choice to run around without security. But it’s another case of the U.S. as Rambo: We get reamed because we supposedly bash recklessly around the world with a machine-guns-first, questions-later style – but when things really hit the fan, what’s the first country that’s expected to solve the crisis du jour?

South Korea has one of the largest standing militaries in the world. That manpower would be a great help in both rescuing their own citizens and trying to wipe out the Taliban. But rather than inspire them to take responsibility and pony up more resources, this incident has had the opposite effect.  [Bridget Johnson, LA Daily News]

In the short term, the Korean government  may win a few votes  by demonizing America and buying the freedom of as many hostages as it can.  In the long term,  that nation’s security will suffer if it  pits America’s vital security interests in Afghanistan against its less-vital security interests in  keeping a large military presence in South Korea, one of the world’s richest countries.

The only  clear winners here are The Taliban.  In a Korean election year, their murder of two other  hostages will quickly  be forgotten, while these two releases will be held up as proof of the success of a ransom-based  response to terror.  Naturally,  the Taliban are now threatening to take more hostages.  The South Korean government has made it highly profitable for a wide range of thugs — North Korean thugs, Afghan thugs, Nigerian thugs, whatever — to take its citizens hostage.

“The longer it goes on and the more exposure it receives in the international media, the more strain it creates on the U.S., Afghan, and South Korean governments,” [one terrorism expert] said in an e-mail interview with Yonhap. 

“This is why we call hostage-taking a ‘a weapon of mass impact.'”  [Yonhap]

I do  not mean to blame the hostages for the reactions of their government and some of their fellow citizens.  They probably didn’t think through how some of their countrymen would react, or much else about this trip.   Only they can explain just how they  expected their mission  to end.  Their government’s decisions to negotiate and pay  ransom (possibly to the wrong people), to veto two rescue attempts, or to set America up as the villlain  probably didn’t figure into their plans.  It’s not fair at all to blame them for the  murderous intolerance  of a death cult, though that was the most predictable part of this story.  The missionaries themselves  are neither villains nor heroes here.  They  were merely the ones who chose, still inexplicably, to be  the low-hanging fruit for every breed of swine in  the  orchard. 

The victims are not villains, but they  are also unworthy of comparison to the intrepid  South Korean missionaries who are infiltrating into North Korea or smuggling refugees through China, and who face  great risks knowing that there is  no  hope of resue or ransom if they’re caught.  When was the last time you heard a South Korean official call on China or North Korea  to release any Korean refugee, missionary, abductee, or prisoner of war, much less plunk down cash to free one?  South Korean officials are far more likely to collude with Chinese or North Korea captors of their citizens than lift a finger to free them.  By all accounts (here, here), plenty of  North Koreans are  ready to be changed by South Korean missionaries.  By all accounts, virtually no Afghans are.  In North Korea and in the safehouses of China’s underground railroad,  missionaries are changing societies and saving lives.  In Afghanistan, this particular group of missionaries has  given the death cult  its biggest propaganda coup of a year in which  it has  had some significant military setbacks.  The difference between  the underground railroad  and the Afghan hostages is the difference between clandestine sophistication and a march of lemmings.  Take it from no less an authority than the Reverend Tim Peters:

“Vacation missionaries [go] to war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, and you get them in situations where they are way out of their depth ….”  [WSJ, Opinion Journal]

Courage and foolishness are sometimes  difficult to distinguish, but not impossible.  I draw it  along these lines.  First,  are those who put themselves in danger trying to minimize risk or maximize it?  Here’s the bus the hostages were riding  through Talibanland.   


[link to Reuters photo]  

Here’s a map of where they were:


So much for discretion being the better part of valor.  Second, were they prepared  to face  the risks they chose to confront?  I guess not:

“We really want to go home, we are all sick and weak,” said the woman, who spoke both in English and the Afghan language of Dari. “We are all innocent people. We came here to help these people but now we are all sick.”  [USA Today]

Third, is there  some  reasonable hope that their risk will be  rewarded by some meaningful accomplishment?   Here’s what I’d really, really like to know, because it’s relevant to just how much help these people expected to provide:  what medical training did these people have, if any?  I spent more time googling around than I should have,  which turned up  some unsourced references to some of the hostages being “medical professionals” or having had six months of medical training.  How many were doctors or nurses?  What, specifically would they have done, and where?  (You may recall a previous group of 1,000 Korean Christian missionaries who were deported “for their own safety” after they ended up knocking on the doors of confused locals in Herat  and conducting Korean-language prayer services  at local historic sites.)   According to some reports, their medical mission was in Kandahar, in which case, why not  fly  into Kandahar instead of  riding a bright, shiny bus down  the highway  through Ghazni, halfway  between the two cities?  Do the many other Christian charities that  operate in Afghanistan — Christian Aid,  Lutheran World Relief, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Friends Afghan Concern, Catholic Relief, or Episcopal Afghan Aid —  operate this way?  I’m sure we’d have read much more about them if they did.  Those groups are getting much less (of the wrong kind of) publicity  because they’ve found smarter ways to do good, and to spread their message in the most persuasive way — by example.

Now apply the same three questions to the missionaries who are smuggling North Koreans through China.  There’s no question they’re also taking great  risks, but the sheer weight of consequence has forced them to adapt their methods enough to outwit Chinese or North Korean security forces, at least most of the time.  Without question, they’re fully  prepared to  accept the consequences of getting caught.  The risks they take  have upset plenty of diplomats and foreign ministry bureaucrats, but they have probably  saved thousands of lives.  If they continue to transform the societies of China and North Korea, they may save millions.  A smarter approach — which Korean churches are now reconsidering — might even help  nudge Afghan society  out of the middle ages.

What’s been so striking about the whole discussion of the Afghanistan hostages is the tendency of their detractors and supporters alike to generalize and oversimplify the issue based on their own feelings about Christianity generally.  Hate Christians?  Hit one time too many with a ruler in Catholic school?  Odds are you’re among those chatting away in enjoyment at  the hostages’ misery, or trying  to draw moral equivalence between the hostages and the Taliban.  Likewise, those who generally support Christianity or the right to preach it have tended to hold the 23 blameless for all the pain  that came of their mission.  But if it’s error to generalize about Islam — and there’s precious little Muslim criticism of this crime to be heard from anyone but Hamid Karzai  — it’s surely a far greater error to herd all Christians onto this ill-fated  bus.  Not all faith is the same, not all Christianity is the same, and not every sacrifice is equally worthy of our honor because of the symbol it wears. 

Count me among those  who believe that  Afghanistan would be a better place if it were minimally  influenced by the Christian ethic, but this  mission’s  most important  revelation has been the success of hostage-taking as a  profitable business model for terrorists.  It  will expose other, more effective  Christian aid organizations to greater danger.   Douglas Shin, one of the savvier operatives of the underground railroad out of North Korea, sees even  wider effects:

“People will wonder if it is worth the risk now, and donors will probably withhold more funds because they fear they could be causing someone harm.” Though Shin believes the Afghanistan mission was sincere, he expects that what he calls “camcorder missions” — assignments that are more or less photo ops for groups looking money for supporters — to wane in the near future.    [Time]

It merits repeating that anyone not wishing for the safe return of these unfortunates is a poisoned,  soulless ghoul.  But it’s one thing to  wish for  a fool’s  deliverance from evil, and another to make a hero of  the fool because his role in wreaking destruction was  passive.  Having disregarded their government’s warnings and those of the Afghan government, those who sent these  hostages into Taliban country  now expect both governments to make sacrifices  that will  get other people  maimed and killed to save them.  There are so many places —  including places in Afghanistan —  where that kind of result would have been  less predictable.  Just as we use the phrase “suicide by cop,” this looks to be a case of “martyrdom by Taliban.”  Only now, the burden of  martyrdom is being shifted to others — Afghans and future hostages — who never signed up for it.

The Taliban, who only give the superficial appearance of being human, oblige.  When sadists and masochists meet, there is always extra pain to go around.


  1. Thank you Joshua Stanton for your lengthy but necessary reflections on the Christian hostages in Afghanistan. We learn from error and adversity, Koreans as much as any. Consider the abilities of the armed forces of free Korea in the late 1960s as opposed to the early 1950s. Consider the relative quality of the Hyundai automobile now, as opposed to 1986.

    I have long supposed that when the Kim family regime disappeared from northern Korea and the real job of bringing spiritual and material assistance to the genuinely deprived people there can begin, lots of Korean missionaries from Ukraine and Russia to Kazakhstan and points south, could be drawn to ground zero for the really major work to be done. At least the language difficulties will be mior in comparison! Pyongyang was once thought to be the “Jerusalem of the East”, and who knows what the not-to-distant future could bring.

    Admittedly and clearly, those at the church concerned who were facilitating the missionaries’ venture to Afghanistan had inadequate appreciation of the risks. The bus driver concerned wasn’t the only one in the pay of wolves; bird-dogs with cell phones probably prowl Kabul Airport and guest accommodations.

    Between now and 2008 contemporary free Korea will conclusively demonstrate what it is made of, and perhaps others will draw conclusions and adjust their relations accordingly.

    Thank you again for your worthy effort.


  2. As usual, a judicious look below the surface of things, drawing connections and comparisons that had not occurred to me. Thank you.

    It would make sense for the Afghan government to react to this incident by barring entry, until further notice, to anyone holding a Korean passport. What are the chances of that?


  3. Many useful points in your commentary, but I must comment on this:

    ‘The missionaries themselves are neither villains nor heroes here. They were merely the ones who chose, still inexplicably, to be the low-hanging fruit for every breed of swine in the orchard. ‘

    I think this points to something profoundly important about an altruist morality of self-sacrificial service. Such a morality can only evaluate the goodness of an action by the presence of something sacrificed, but after that principle is accepted, then what is the right thing to do? Such a morality cannot distinguish between sacrifice to save a North Korean refugee and sacrifice to bring aid to an Afghan ‘heretic’. How are these people to decide?

    It seems clear to me that the reasonable target for such sacrificial energy for a South Korean would be to help dissolve that vile regime in the North. The help can be immediate, practical, and in South Korea’s interest. But how is a sacrificier to choose among potential sacrifices?

    Altruism is, in the end, an empty moral code. It cannot define what thing to do among many sacrificial opportunities. It does not define the good.

    That said, I think a strong case can be made that the choices of those kidnapped, and of those who want to appease the kidnappers, are immoral. You mentioned some main reasons: their choices put many others at risk, and they have handed a propaganda victory to one of the most vicious death cults on the planet. If those now added to the risk pool had been asked before this trip, I suspect many would have said ‘stay home’, or ‘exercise your sacrificial energy on your own country’s problems’.

    The first principle of a sacrificial morality perhaps ought to be the same as the medical profession: ‘first, do no harm’.


  4. What an excellent blog you have here. I’m certainly blogrolling you. This is by far the best analysis I’ve read of the S. Korean hostage crisis and while I understand some of your more negative appraisals of the missionaries’ actions, I want to add my anecdotal impression. I’m an English teacher and I had a S. Korean student in my class a couple of weeks ago. His father is a devout Christian but he is still finding his way. He’s a real thinker. He explained to me the rationale of the actions of these missionaries. He talked about the history of the Christianizing of S. Korea right back to its very earliest days, of those European missionaries who were killed by one of the old dynasties who were threatened by what they perceived as a danger to their power. He talked about the tradition of bold and courageous Christianity which has ensued from that and in the light of that, how this team believed that ‘every place on which your foot shall tread, God has given it to you.’ And believing that, they set off for the most dangerous corner of the planet to ‘set their foot on it’ for their faith. Many of us criticize the war and yet, we acknowledge the threat the Islamists are to the whole world. No other solutions have been put forward yet. Maybe, just maybe, the actions of these young missionaries, so full of faith and courage, may yet reap results. Yes, there are negatives, but I don’t think we can always see the eternal results of an action in the short-term. I for one am waiting to see the final outcome.
    I know this may sound illogical, but a lot of life can’t be explained in simple terms.