As Americans gather with their families at Christmastime, we should pause to remember four who are not coming home for the holidays.

James Foley will not be with his family in New Hampshire. Steven Sotloff will not be going home to Florida. And Peter Kassig will not be at the table in Indiana. The three men – two journalists and an aid worker – were beheaded this year by the Islamic State terror group, which had taken them hostage in Syria. A fourth American, a female aid worker, remains held by Islamic State captors.

Those responsible for this suffering and death are the barbarians who seized these Americans – pure and simple. But it’s also undeniable that their hope of a homecoming was set back by a well-intentioned U.S. policy that doesn’t allow their loved ones to negotiate for their safe return.

Of the 23 known Islamic State hostages, the 15 who have been freed – four French, three Spaniards, two Danes, an Italian, a German, a Belgian, a Swede, a Swiss and a Peruvian – generally came from countries known to allow ransom. The six killed (a Russian and two Britons in addition to the Americans) came from countries that generally don’t. (One Brit is known to remain in captivity along with the American, whose family has requested that she not be identified.)

In theory, the no-ransom policy makes sense as part of an overall strategy that says no negotiations with terrorists. But in practice, American purity in this area is neither real (the United States often cuts deals with terrorists and their sponsors) nor productive.

James Foley’s mother, Diane, told ABC News after her son’s death that she had been threatened with prosecution by U.S. officials, including one on the White House’s National Security Council, if she tried to raise money to pay her son’s ransom. “I was surprised there was so little compassion,” she said. “We were told we could do nothing.”

The Obama administration, which attempted a military rescue of Foley and others, expects to complete this spring a review of its hostage policy and has sent letters to hostages’ families seeking their input. An NSC official said the review “does not include reconsideration of ransoms” but that the administration is seeking to do what it can “within the bounds of the law to assist families to bring their loved ones home.”

There’s no call for the United States to go as far as European countries, which officially deny paying ransom but which quietly have paid tens of millions of dollars to free hostages. Still, the U.S. alternative – attempting rescue raids for hostages (one in Syria and two in Yemen) – has been both deadly and fruitless.

What the Obama administration could do, rather, is to drop any suggestion that families and would-be donors could be turned into criminals for trying to save their kin and fellow Americans. If the government isn’t willing to pursue hostage negotiations, it could at least help families and other private parties make diplomatic connections so they could give it a try.

The administration has argued that paying ransom and bargaining with terrorists would make Americans more vulnerable to hostage-taking. But this stance hasn’t stopped terrorists from seizing Americans; it means only that these Americans are more likely to die.

It’s also unpersuasive for the Obama administration to claim an absolute position against dealing with terrorists. The administration recently traded five high-value Taliban leaders for the release of captive U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl. In Iran, the Obama administration didn’t object when three American hikers and a Canadian Iranian correspondent for Newsweek were released after paying bail of as much as $500,000.

Just last week, the administration agreed to release three imprisoned Cuban spies in a swap with Cuba for a U.S. intelligence agent and the “humanitarian” release of political prisoner Alan Gross. Around the same time, Sony Pictures Entertainment bowed to threats of violence made by North Korea, pulling its provocative film “The Interview” and surrendering a reported $90 million (it has since opted for a “limited release”).

Sony’s buckling to terrorist threats dwarfs the modest hopes of the families of hostages to try to buy the freedom of their loved ones. Such efforts won’t always work, of course. But it would be humane to abandon a policy that compounds the suffering of hostages’ parents by punishing them for trying to help their children.

Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. He can be contacted at:

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