Peter Popham: Two people of no monetary value – and so aren't worth saving

We are showing a deep indifference to a couple who are not young and not famous

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It is very unlucky for Paul and Rachel Chandler that they are human beings. If they were barrels of crude or frozen carcasses of Australian beef, their ordeal at the hands of the Somali pirates who captured them last October would have been brought briskly to an end by the arrival of negotiators acting for the relevant insurance companies, the handing over of cases stuffed with hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, and a businesslike handshake.

That is how our wealthy world deals with pirates when they attack our commercial interests – with supreme pragmatism. We know all about this: it's no secret. We tolerate it. No one makes a fuss or cries foul. The pirates are not paid off as a matter of choice but necessity. Somalia has no government. At least 17 national navies have dispatched ships to intimidate, chase or attack the pirates that come out of Somalia, but the Indian Ocean is huge, the pirates are ruthless, and often – about one-quarter of the time – they succeed in netting their prey. And then, so the wheels of commerce can continue to turn, they must be paid off.

But when what is at stake is just a couple of ageing British citizens, morality suddenly rears its head as an excellent reason to do nothing. The familiar Foreign Office mantra is heard in the land: "We do not negotiate with pirates/terrorists/ hostage-takers." It is as brutally simple as that.

And the Foreign Office means what it says. The crew who captured the Chandlers initially believed they might be as valuable as an oil tanker, and demanded $3m for their release. The answering silence made them aware that, despite their white skins, they were not as lucky a catch as they seemed.

In November a man called Nick Davis, who had set up the not-for-profit Merchant Maritime Warfare Centre to help shipping companies tackle the pirate menace, got involved and claimed that in negotiations he had succeeded in beating the hostage-takers down to a ransom of $100,000 – but that deal was sunk when the Foreign Office refused to get involved.

Last week Mr Davis said he believed the release of an interview and videos of the Chandlers meant that their captors were keen to do a deal. "It's costing them a lot of money to keep them alive," he said. "I have a suspicion they will soon lose patience. The Government needs to understand that this could turn against them." But Mr Miliband's department showed not a flicker of interest. For Britain, negotiations are a no-no, and that's that. Hostages may be freed in a firefight, at great risk to their lives and the lives of others; but failing that, unless their captors see the error of their ways and simply let them go, they are under sentence of death.

This is our habitual way of dealing with such problems. The list of innocent British citizens who have been shot, decapitated or otherwise disposed of grows steadily longer. We remember tragic Keith Bigley, his beheading filmed and broadcast, the charity worker Margaret Hassan, blindfolded and shot dead after nearly a month in captivity, the others seized and murdered in the darkest days of post-war Iraq. All of them pleaded for help from their homeland, but in every case they were met by the stony mantra.

We have our happy endings too, but rarely thanks to the Government. Alan Johnston, the BBC's man in Gaza, was freed after a noisy campaign by his fellow-journalists, and widespread revulsion at his kidnapping by the people of the Strip. Peter Moore's liberation was nothing to do with the Foreign Office but the result of the US freeing a prominent Iranian prisoner.

There are no British figures equivalent to Florence Aubenas, the journalist with Libération, the French newspaper, or Susanne Osthoff, the German archaeologist, or the "Two Simonas", Italian charity workers Simona Pari and Simona Torretta. All were freed in murky circumstances, amid rumours that millions had been paid for their release. But for people back home, the question of how they were sprung was secondary. What mattered above all was the saving of those lives.

And that is the crux of the matter: for the French, Germans, Italians, etc, (the list goes on), the over-riding priority is that these innocent unfortunates are set free, and the pressure on their governments to act effectively is intense. The public in these countries identifies with the fate of these individuals as closely as their immediate families do.

But in Britain, we don't, and so the Government feels under no pressure to do anything but go through the motions and recite the mantra. Look at the niggardly support the effort to free the Chandlers has attracted. The Save the Chandlers website is run by a man living in California. It is trying to raise money to pay off the pirates, but at the last count, after the photographs of the desperately emaciated Rachel Chandler had been splashed across the papers, it had amassed a grand total of $900.

That pathetic sum reflects deep public indifference to a couple who are not young and pretty, not famous, not special in any way, so we couldn't care less. Read the online comments that news articles about their plight attract: chiding their foolishness in wanting to take a look at the Tanzanian coast, bemoaning the absence of a Maggie Thatcher who would give the pirates a good bashing, insisting over and over again, as if it were a badge of courage, on the iniquity of paying ransom. And, despite the millions being paid for the release of merchant ships, invoking Kipling's argument for them being allowed to die:

"... And that is called paying the Dane-geld,

And we've proved it again and again,

That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld,

You will never get rid of the Dane."

Fortunately, not everyone in Britain thinks like this. Last week, during Friday prayers at their local mosque, Somalis living in Bristol launched an appeal to raise money to obtain the couple's freedom. As reported in local newspapers, they called on each of the 500,000 Somalis living in Britain to give £10 towards their release.

Mohammed Omer, a local businessman, told a reporter, "We feel sorry for them and hope the pirates let them go... If the Government doesn't want to pay, the Somali community in Britain will."

One might have thought this show of compassion from people of a different race and faith might have shamed the Chandlers' countrymen into showing some sympathy. Instead, this was one of the comments on the Bristol newspaper's website:

"So the taxes I pay from working full-time go to many Somali's [sic] to live here and do nothing to pay their way is then saved up by them only to pay the ransom set by their fellow Somali's [sic] in Somalia who are holding British people captive. Joke!"

Another wrote in similar vein: "If they want to sponsor Somalian terrorists, go home and do it!"

These are comments which, in one venomous reflex, flush the whole subject down the toilet: the bitter suffering of Somali civilians in their civil wars, the decency of Britain in giving them asylum, the generous impulse of the Somalis of Bristol, and the Chandlers' mortal plight.

There is certainly an issue of morality involved in negotiating with these particular kidnappers, but not in the way it is usually framed. It comes down to a simple question: whatever happened to our compassion? Why don't we care?

p.popham@independent.co.uk

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