In 1847, David Pacifico, a Jew who had been born in British-held Gibraltar and was therefore a British subject, had his house burned down in Athens by an anti-Semitic mob. The Greek government refused to protect him or provide any restitution. Lord Palmerston, Britain’s foreign secretary, sent the Royal Navy to blockade Greece until it paid Pacifico’s demands.
Critics charged that Palmerston was overreacting. The House of Lords even voted to censure him. But in the House of Commons, Palmerston carried the day with a magnificent five-hour oration in which he declared: “As the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say, Civis Romanus sum [I am a Roman citizen], so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him from injustice and wrong.”
Theodore Roosevelt struck a similar tone in 1904 after Ion Perdicaris, a Greek-American living in Morocco, was kidnapped by the bandit chief Ahmed al-Raisuli. His Secretary of State John Hay drove the 1904 Republican Convention into a frenzy of approbation when he made it known that an American naval squadron had been sent to Morocco to demand “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” (It later turned out that Perdicaris was no longer an American citizen, but that was a mere detail compared to the principle Roosevelt espoused.)
I recount these tidbits of ancient history to show how far we have come over the past century — in the wrong direction. Today the United States is the mightiest nation in the world — far stronger than Britain was in its 19th-century heyday or than we ourselves were in 1904. Yet what happens today to those who dare take our citizens hostage? Umm, pretty much nothing.
Ace columnist Jeff Jacoby reminds us that two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were seized by North Korea five months ago and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. More recently, three young Americans have been detained by Iran after being accused of wandering into its territory.
Far from issuing thunderous demands for “Ling and Lee Alive or Kim Jong Il dead,” the U.S. government is reacting with the kind of caution we have come to expect ever since the Iranian hostage crisis, which made the seizure of American hostages a matter for diplomatic confabs rather than military movements. As Jacoby notes: “There has been no public condemnation of North Korea’s thuggish behavior, only a request that the women be granted ‘amnesty’ and set free. At the State Department’s insistence, a mild congressional resolution urging the journalists’ release was withdrawn by its sponsor, Representative Adam Schiff of California.”
Granted, there are good reasons not to launch a war against North Korea or Iran over the fate of these hostages. North Korea, after all, has something that the Moroccans and Greeks didn’t — nuclear weapons. Still, it’s an outrage that there isn’t more outrage, either in the U.S. government or the country at large, over the fate of our fellow citizens who are held hostage by thugs. We could use a “Civis Americanus Sum” doctrine today.