Politics is usually about compromise, so we should savor those rare policy decisions for which every consideration—justice, morality, practicality—is neatly aligned. The Trump administration has a chance this week to reverse itself and get one such decision right. There are indications that it will.
The underlying facts offer little to savor. The Islamic State kidnapped and murdered four Americans in 2014 and 2015. Some of the people responsible for those crimes are dead: Mohammed Emwazi—who allegedly held the knife that killed the journalists James Foley, 40, and Steven Sotloff, 31, and an aid worker, Peter Abdul-Rahman Kassig, 26—was killed in a drone strike in 2015; Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State and its rapist in chief, was killed last year. Another hostage, Kayla Jean Mueller, 26, was held separately, kept as a sex slave of Baghdadi and then murdered. Two more alleged members of the kidnapping cell, both British-born like Emwazi, are in custody in Iraq. Testimony from surviving hostages ties them to the cell, and they have spoken publicly from prison in ways that implicate them further. The United States can bring them to trial in federal court, probably the Eastern District of Virginia, whenever it likes.
The sticking point is that the Trump administration is interested in killing them, and the British government, like many other states that have abolished the death penalty, refuses to cooperate in other governments’ prosecution of capital cases. The two men, Alexanda Kotey, 36, and El Shafee Elsheikh, 32, are beneficiaries of this disagreement. Britain has evidence against them and refuses to share it unless the United States pledges not to execute them.
The victims of the disagreement are the families of the murdered. They are demanding that the U.S. commit to not seeking the death penalty and prosecute the men forthwith. “It has been six years since Steven and the other kids were murdered,” Art Sotloff, Steven’s father, told me. “It has been nothing but agony for everybody. We can’t wait for this to happen.”
The families have grieved privately for years, but they have begun speaking up recently out of fear that Kotey and Elsheikh will elude justice altogether. The impasse has already allowed the two men to stall for more than a year—and in that time the memories of witnesses have faded, along with public outrage over the murders. Wait long enough, the families fear, and the United States will just punt the case to Britain, where courts hand down much shorter sentences, sometimes just a few years. The families also remember that the Taliban successfully negotiated the release of five senior prisoners in Guantánamo Bay in exchange for U.S. Army Private Bowe Bergdahl. Many things could happen and pervert a normal course of justice.
“If anyone deserves to die, it’s these guys,” Carl Mueller, Kayla Mueller’s father, told me. It is hard to convey how twisted the ISIS kidnappers were. They collected hostages for reasons that could fairly be called psychopathic. They abused them recreationally. They raped female hostages, including Mueller. And they taunted the families of their victims—demanding enormous sums of money, or prisoner swaps, with full knowledge that the only outcome of this process would be the death of those families’ children. ISIS never even revealed the burial site of the victims’ remains.
Kotey and Elsheikh have spent the past two years without giving the parents of the deceased even the small consolation and finality of knowing what really happened in the last days of their children’s lives, or of knowing where their bodies are buried. “We know so very little,” Marsha Mueller, Kayla’s mother, told me. “Those horrible people are still harming us today.” That these suspects are not begging daily for the chance to rectify this situation, and to answer any question they can, suggests to me that they have no remorse.
The families are asking the Trump administration for nothing more than the opportunity to let Kotey and Elsheikh defend themselves—and then, if their defense fails, they can spend the rest of their lives in solitary penance for what they did. “Personally, I don’t have a problem with the death penalty,” Carl Mueller said. “But if they get killed, they think they get the treasures of martyrdom. I never wanted them to be executed.” “I could not kill an insect,” Marsha Mueller said. James Foley’s mother, Diane Foley, is even more adamant. “I do not want to stoop to [killing],” she told me. “Violence creates more violence. But I think they should be held for the rest of their lives.”
“I want them to be brought here for a trial that is fair and just,” another family member, who did not wish to be identified, told me. This relative noted that the three American men were dressed in orange jumpsuits, Guantánamo-style, for their beheadings. “If we lock them away with no trial, we make them living martyrs. If we make the boneheaded decision to execute them, then they become dead martyrs.”
The Mueller family says the Trump administration has been attentive to their concerns, and that the Obama administration’s incompetence cost the hostages their lives. “Look at all the people who got out,” Carl Mueller said, referring to European hostages who were saved by ransoms paid to ISIS. (Two British captives, Alan Henning and David Haines, were also murdered by the group, as were two Japanese hostages, Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa.) The ones who were released, Carl said, are “raising families, getting married.” The Americans are dead. “We think this administration will make it right and not just desert us.”