Still image from undated video of a masked Islamic State militant holding a knife speaking next to man purported to be James Foley at an unknown location

Somewhere in the desert of eastern Syria, a militant from the Islamic State beheaded the American journalist James Foley this week. The killer and his terrorist group are responsible for Foley’s death. They should be the focus of public anger.

But Foley’s execution is also a chilling wake-up call for American and European policymakers, as well as U.S. news outlets and aid organizations. It is the clearest evidence yet of how vastly different responses to kidnappings by U.S. and European governments save European hostages but can doom the Americans. Hostages and their families realize this fully — even if the public does not.

“I wish I could have the hope of freedom and seeing my family once again, but that ship has sailed,” Foley said moments before he was killed in a craven video released by the militant group on Tuesday. “I guess, all in all, I wish I wasn’t American.”

French journalist Nicolas Henin is cheered by relatives as he arrives by helicopter from Evreux to the military airbase in VillacoublayFoley clearly spoke under duress. But his regret at being an American captive, real or not, reflected grim fact.

This spring, four French and two Spanish journalists held hostage by the Islamic State extremists were freed — after the French and Spanish governments paid ransoms through intermediaries.