The families of James Foley and Steven Sotloff have complained that the Obama administration threatened to prosecute them if they tried to ransom their loved ones. It is completely understandable why the families would be upset about this: how could any family fail to do anything possible to save their loved ones from such a horrific fate? And how could any family not be horrified that their own government might try to stop them?

I don’t think there’s anyone who could fail to sympathize. But that doesn’t mean the government isn’t rightr.

Therein lies the terrible ethical, emotional, and practical dilemma. By paying ransoms, the behavior of the terrorists is rewarded, more kidnappings of Americans occur, and our enemies grow richer. Plus, there is no guarantee that a group such as ISIS is actually serious about such negotiations.

Every now and then the Obama administration gets it right, and this is one of those times. However, Obama’s staff being who they are, they were probably especially cold and insensitive in communicating with the families. That being said, it’s not clear that under the circumstances there would have been any acceptable way to say “no,” or that any approach short of complete cooperation would not raise the families’ ire and frustration.

Even before the families spoke out in this way, I came to the very reluctant conclusion that the only way to deal with these kidnappings is to never pay a ransom, and to strongly discourage private sources from doing so, as well.

That’s heartbreaking, and it feels wrong. But anything one can do in such a situation, short of a successful rescue operation, feels wrong. The Obama administration’s policy on this was almost certainly conveyed to the families in too unfeeling a manner, but it represents the stance of previous administrations as well as current.

You can’t pin this one on Obama, although you can certainly criticize him—and harshly—for dragging his feet on a rescue mission (if that report is true.)

The deep sympathy most of us have for the inexpressible anguish of the Foley and Sotloff families does not change the fact that the problem is inherent in the terrible situation itself. The perspectives of the families and the government are going to be different, and there’s no way to change that except by a solution that gives both parties what they want: a successful rescue operation. Sadly, that did not happen for either James Foley or Steven Sotloff.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]