To give in or not to give in? That is the question


This article was written before the heinous act by ISIS who murdered Kenji Goto. It is with heavy hearts that postscript, Mr Goto had been executed by ISIS.

There is a deadlock in efforts by Jordan and Japan to secure the release of their citizens who have been abducted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). ISIS has already killed one Japanese citizen when Japan refused to pay an initial ransom demand of US$200million, and following that incident, ISIS is now demanding the release of a suicide bomber, Sajida al-Rishawi, currently on death row in Jordan. However, Jordan is refusing to release Rishawi unless ISIS offers proof of life of their pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh. Currently, ISIS is not responding, yet still threatening to kill both captives. The question here is, “Should Japan and Jordan give in or not?”

No easy answer

The issue at hand is complex and to either say “yes” or “no” is not so simple. People who say “yes” normally focus on the paternalistic responsibility of the state for its citizens. After all, how can a government intentionally allow one of its citizens to be murdered if it had the wherewithal to stop it? Since it is “only” money, that can be recovered. But a life lost cannot be recovered, and that can impact the future of that government, especially when it goes to the next polls. So, “yes”, they should give in.

But there are many more who say that governments should never negotiate with terrorists. When they do so, they reinforce the notion that terrorists who kidnap citizens for ransom can get away with it. By being paid ransom for the release of captives, terrorists will not only continue taking on hostages, they might even do it more frequently and brazenly. And every terrorist cell in the world will now resort to this, since funds for their illegal activities have been harder to come by. So, “no”, they should not give in.

This is a nightmare situation for all governments if ever there was one.

A multi-lateral agreement is needed

To solve this problem, there must be a multi-lateral agreement by all governments in the world not to give in to such terror threats. This is hard to come by, and even harder to sustain. European countries have been known to pay up the ransom for quick release of their citizens. They prefer not to draw the matter out in the public and cause distress to many. Obviously this puts paid to all the efforts by other countries, notably the US, who will never bend to the will of terrorists, and hence will never pay up. Obviously, if one were a terrorist and knowing which countries would pay, and which wouldn’t, one would simply target those who were from those countries. Yet, since one cannot tell apart citizens from different countries, they take everyone hostage. And therein lies the rub.

The solution requires a systemic view of terrorism, and a concerted effort to defang this base tactic. But since efforts for a unified front against paying the ransom are so hard to come by, the solution will evade us. So, just like Japan now, the world must allow this to play out on its own, and then handle the eventualities as they come. Not ideal.

What has this got to do with us?

In business, we too might sometimes face such a “rock-and-a-hard-place” situation where either option is bad. One cannot even do a pros-and-cons analysis because the variables are different for both. It is hard to evaluate each. In cases like these, one needs to look at the situation more holistically, identify drivers that reinforce the situation, and those that hinder these situations. From there, identify the centres of gravity of the situation and apply solutions to them. This requires nerves of steel and an iron-resolve to match. There might be collateral damage. But that is sometimes the price to pay to move the system out of his stasis and onto a higher ideal.

To know more of just how to apply systems solutions, read this article.

Related: New Systems Thinking Part One: A refreshing way to find solutions

If you are currently faced with such a situation, drop me an email at and perhaps we can work together to systemically solve your dilemma.

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