Robert Whitcomb: Holiday cards: History at the micro level; ransoms cause killing

Every Christmas week I send “Happy New Year’’ cards to people who have just sent us holiday cards. If they took the time to send us cards then we should reply. Thus you can reconnect with a lot of people, if only once a year. In doing so, you stay in the fabric of a wider life than you might have without the card exchange. Going through them is a sort of forced review of recent history at the micro-level. And then there’s the reminder of mortality, as these cards report more and more deaths to you as the years roll by, along, of course, with the births. Then there’s the obituary by omission: Cards from certain people just stop coming. These pieces of brightly colored paper can be like those models of skulls that priests and scholars used to keep on their work tables to focus their minds.

Along with the cards comes the knee-jerk reaction to review the year past and make resolutions about the next. My central resolution is always, as Thoreau advised, to “Simplify, simplify.’’ (As a bachelor and grand moocher on friends and neighbors, it was easy for him.) But simplification is far from simple in 21st century America, and the machine upon which I’m typing this is one reason. It offers endless distraction.

“Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” Peter Kreeft, a philosopher/theologian, wrote: “We want to complexify our lives. … We want to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very things we complain about. For if we had leisure, we would look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it.’’ (Or maybe luxurious leisure can fill it!)

Some people e-mail their holiday cards — to simplify and/or to save money. But these transmissions obviously lack the emotional weight and resonance of physical cards. (By the way, scientists say that reading on paper supports more memory of text than does reading on a screen.) And e-mails are too easy to delete. A really good paper card may be kept for years, perhaps in a scrapbook.

The Internet won’t destroy the paper-card business anytime soon.


The New York Times ran a piece Dec. 28 headlined “U.S. Policy of No Ransom Closes Off Other Options,’’ which I took as an implied defense of paying ransom to murderous groups such as the Islamic State in order to free kidnapped people from rich countries with big media.

Of course, these stories of Americans (such as New Hampshire’s James Foley) and other Westerners who go to the Mideast for humanitarian, journalistic and other reasons and then are kidnapped by the likes of IS are horrific. But the United States’ paying ransom to get them back will create many more such cases.

The basic problem with stories like The Times’s is that they divert attention from the broad duty of destroying a depraved group that would, with pleasure, kill millions of people if it could, to tragic individual human-interest stories. In this diversion, it puts many more people than the hostages in peril, whatever the heartwarming pictures of paid-for kidnap victims being reunited with their families.

David S. Cohen, U.S. Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and finance intelligence, nicely summarized where the ransom money goes: “[to] help fund the full range of [terrorists’] activities, including recruiting and indoctrinating new members, paying salaries, establishing training camps, acquiring weapons and communications gear, staging deadly attacks, and helping to support the next generation of violent extremist groups.’’

Why not just ship the Islamic State weapons or pay them their wages instead of paying ransom? Save time.

Paying ransom to terrorists kills. People know this, but …

Robert Whitcomb oversees New England Diary.