TCS Daily


Put a Price on His Head

By Randall Lutter - January 3, 2002 12:00 AM

What do famed killers Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Doolin-Dalton gang members, and Joaquin Murieta share in common? Answer: These 19th century terrorists were shot dead by gunmen seeking government bounties. Meanwhile, Osama Bin Laden -- who planned the deaths of many more Americans -- still roams the hills of central Asia. Given bin Ladens gloating video-taped admission that he organized the September 11 attacks, we should treat him the same way we treated terrorists of the Old West: by putting a price on his head.

The history of rewards for terrorists of the Old West provides a surprisingly strong case for bounty-hunting bin Laden. Indeed, lawmen who fought Jesse James and Billy the Kid would have been shocked by President Bushs suggestion that bin Laden is Wanted Dead or Alive," because the President missed the key point of the old wanted posters -- the reward. Rewards offered for 19th century mass murderers were different -- and more effective -- than current U.S. policy, which offers money only for information leading directly to the apprehension or conviction of terrorists, but not one nickel for destroying them or delivering them to U.S. authorities.

Rewards enticed even erstwhile friends of the most notorious Old West outlaws to betray them. Jesse James eluded lawmen during fifteen years of robbery and murder. Yet after Missouri Governor Tom Crittenden put a $10,000 reward on his head in 1881, James` fellow robbers Robert and Charlie Ford brought James to their home and shot him in the back of his head. The Fords were charged with James` murder, but Governor Crittenden pardoned them and they got the reward.

Billy the Kid met a similar fate soon after a wanted poster announced $500 for his head. His killer, Sheriff Pat Garrett, was a gambling and drinking buddy who had ridden with the Kid when they were younger. After Governor Wallace offered the reward in 1881, Garrett assembled a posse and shot the Kid through the heart at the Maxwell Ranch in New Mexico. Although Garrett went to trial for murder, he was acquitted for justifiable homicide. He collected his reward through a special act of the territorial legislature.

A reward could disrupt bin Ladens organization -- a happy event that could save the U.S. a lot of trouble and could save U.S. lives. Such disruption wrecked the violent Doolin-Dalton gang in 1895 after U.S. marshals used reward money and outstanding warrants to persuade the Dunn family, a longtime ally of the gang, to reveal its whereabouts. Bill, John, and Dal Dunn shot gang-members Charlie Pierce and Bitter Creek Newcomb while they slept, collecting for themselves a $5000 reward. The Dunns` collaboration led to the shooting or capture of 4 other gang members in subsequent months and the shooting of gang leader Bill Doolin in 1896.

History also offers insights into how a terrorist`s killer might provide proof of success. Joaquin Murieta, leader of a band of murderers and robbers that terrorized Northern California, avoided capture until Governor John Bigler put a $6000 reward on his head. Captain Harry Love and a posse of lawmen opened fire on Murieta`s camp in 1853, mortally wounding Murieta. Unwilling to drag the bodies to town, Love removed Murieta`s head and the hand of "Three-fingered Jack" and used Father Dominic Blane`s verification of their identity to collect the reward from the California legislature.

Economic principles also support the idea of a bounty for bin Laden. Inadequate information hinders U.S. efforts to apprehend or destroy him, despite U.S. sponsorship of teams to monitor his movements and generous offers of cash for information. In 1999 the FBI offered $5 million for information leading directly to bin Laden`s arrest or conviction in connection with the deadly 1998 bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The Department of State recently raised to $25 million the reward for information leading directly to the apprehension or conviction of bin Laden. The ineffectiveness of these rewards is not surprising. As economists have known for years, the market for information works badly because a seller cant convince a buyer that information is valuable without revealing what he is trying to sell.

Excessive centralization also impedes U.S. efforts to get Bin Laden. By the time the government organizes, authorizes and executes an effort to apprehend or destroy him, information about his whereabouts may already be obsolete.

To solve the problems of inadequate information and excessive centralization, the government could establish a bounty for bin Laden. Such a policy would be consistent with longstanding recommendations by economists that the government specify performance objectives and provide incentives for private parties to meet these objectives. These recommendations are embodied in President Clintons Executive Order on regulation, which the current Bush Administration still uses. They also underlie a broad variety of cost-effective regulatory programs. In effect a bounty is an incentive to comply with a performance objective for bin Ladens apprehension or death without casualties among noncombatants.

A bounty may have other practical benefits. It may reduce the odds that a dead terrorist becomes a martyr. If a terrorist were betrayed by associates acting partly to collect a reward, the betrayal would reveal greed among the terrorists closest followers. A modest bounty may do less to finance terrorism than the existing rewards for information.

Skeptics may question the morality of a federal bounty. Indeed, before September 11th, the public broadly supported the ban on assassinations introduced by President Ford in 1976. But the continued liberty of deadly and merciless terrorists, the possibility that they will use smallpox or sarin or even nuclear weapons on U.S. civilians, and the moral imperative of self-defense must put this question to rest.

Congress should enact a bounty for terrorists that the Administration identifies as posing a significant threat. Congressional action would persuade prospective killers of terrorists that the reward will indeed be paid and thus would be much more credible than CIA bounties sometimes rumored to exist. Involving Congress would also mean that bounties would be offered only after the administration gains a consensus that it has truly identified terrorists who pose a continuing threat. Putting a price on terrorists heads can be a legitimate step to improve national defense.

Randall Lutter is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
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