Column: How not to handle a kidnapping

Jason-Column2As I write this, 200 Nigerian schoolgirls, most ranging in age from 16 to 18, are in the custody of Boko Haram, a radical Islamist terrorist group, somewhere in the country’s jungles.

To date, the most significant sign of the world’s outrage is a hashtag on Twitter.

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt was confronted with a kidnapping. He handled it differently.

Ion Perdicaris was a Greek-American playboy and businessman with an interest and a home in Tangier, Morocco. On May 18, 1904, Perdicaris and his stepson, Cromwell Varley, were kidnapped from their home by a group of bandits headed by Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli, an outlaw some in Morocco regarded as something of a Robin Hood.

With his wealthy, foreign captives in-hand, Raisuli demanded $70,000, safe passage for his men and control of two wealthy districts near Tangier from Sultan Abdelaziz of Morocco, who was seen as a weak pawn of European powers and interests.

When word reached the United States, Secretary of State John Hay called Raisuli’s demands “preposterous” and Roosevelt, winding down his term, ordered four warships from the South Atlantic Squadron of the United States Navy to Morocco on May 27. Three more warships, these from the U.S. European Squadron, were dispatched to the area on June 1.

While it might appear Roosevelt’s armada massed along Morocco’s shores to compel Raisuli to release his hostages, the American ships’ actual mission was to pressure the sultan to secure the release of Perdicaris and his stepson. Although few marines actually went ashore, the American forces were poised to seize control of the Moroccan customhouses, the country’s main source of commerce, if the order came from Washington.

Roosevelt and Hay’s demand to Abdelaziz was simple, “This government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”

That line went down a storm when Hay read it at the 1904 Republican National Convention.

Behind the scenes, Roosevelt recruited France and Great Britain to apply additional pressure to the Moroccan government, which both did.

On June 21, the sultan agreed to Raisuli’s terms and Perdicaris and his stepson were released unharmed. Perdicaris said later he grew to admire Raisuli during his captivity.

“He is not a bandit, not a murderer,” Perdicaris said of Raisuli following his release, “but a patriot forced into acts of brigandage to save his native soil and his people from the yoke of tyranny.”

What the public didn’t know until a 1933 biography of Hay was Perdicaris was not an American citizen at all; he’d relinquished his American passport for a Greek one some 40 years before Raisuni kidnapped him. Although he was informed of Perdicaris’ status during his captivity, Roosevelt reasoned Raisuli and the sultan believed Perdicaris to be an American, and that perception alone was enough to make damn sure both of them knew who was boss.

Roosevelt was re-elected in 1904; though it’s unlikely the Perdicaris incident had all that much to do with it beyond Hay’s rabble rousing at the convention.

So, what’s the point of all this?

What has the Perdicaris incident of 1904, in which President Roosevelt forced a sovereign nation to capitulate to what many people would consider a terrorist, have do with the kidnapping of 200 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014?

Well, even in 1904, the world was quite a complicated place with shades of gray and backroom deals that had to be worked out before a not-quite-American could be freed from a might-have-been-but-maybe-not-terrorist, but it got done and, though some of the motivations might have been questionable, no blood was spilled.

In 2014, a year I’m sure we’d like to believe is far more complex than Roosevelt’s era, more than 200 girls have been torn from their schools by cartoonish clichés of evil who have perpetrated an act so pure in its depravity one would roll one’s eyes were it to take place in fiction.

The members of Boko Haram are men around whom the entire world should stop and stare until those 200 girls are back in their classrooms. It should be that simple and it astounds me it hasn’t
happened.

It would be nice to live in a world like that, where malevolence so clearly-cut would be met head-on by everyone else and either shamed from existence, or else extinguished from it if a single hand was raised against those girls or against anyone brave enough to say you can’t do things like this and I’m going to stop you if you do.

It would be nice to live in a world like that, a world that direct. But we don’t.

We have a hashtag.

CONTACT: jason@hometwn.com