Commentary Magazine

The Hostage Mentality

When, against a din of pealing church bells, the Hanafi Muslims released their prisoners in Washington, D.C., last March, it was understood by everyone who had paid attention to the recent history of domestic terrorism that only the first and most crucial stage of the drama had ended. Stage two was about to begin: the interviews with the released hostages, the prayers of thanksgiving, and the testimonials to the patience and expertise of the law-enforcement authorities who had, in this case, also given their word, on which they later made good, that the Hanafi leader responsible for the assaults on the B’nai B’rith offices, the Washington District Building, and the Islamic Center—in which one person had been killed, one permanently crippled, and one hundred thirty-four kept prisoner and threatened with decapitation—could go free on his own recognizance.

As has by now become usual in such events, the most striking aspects of these rites of deliverance were to be found in the behavior of the released hostages themselves, specifically in their expressions of sympathy and understanding for their former captors. One woman, from the B’nai B’rith building, described her feelings for the Hanafis: “I felt sorry for them,” she said, “constantly taking us to the bathroom. I don’t think they meant to kill us.” A man who had been a hostage at the District Building and had served as liaison with the outside (while an armed Hanafi stood over him) had, while still inside, also described—and with a great deal of warmth and enthusiasm—the consideration which the Hanafis showed in letting him and his fellow hostages go to the bathroom. Chosen by his captors—wisely, it would appear—to testify to their civilized conduct during the siege, this hostage set about after his liberation to amplify the testimonial made under threat of guns, continuing on his own the role assigned him by the Hanafis of character witness and, in effect, ally.

Another testimonial came from a B’nai B’rith secretary whom the Hanafi leader, Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, had selected to answer his telephones after first ascertaining that she was not a Jew. She had, the secretary later told the press, developed a certain sympathy for her captor. “He was very nice. He’s basically a compassionate person.” In addition to this expression of gratitude—the secretary had in fact been well treated by Khaalis, compared to the others in the B’nai B’rith building who were the objects of violently anti-Semitic tirades and often brutal behavior—the woman said that she had felt no fear whatever with the Hanafis, that she felt afraid only when she first saw the police.

So absolute is the logic of perversity attending these events that perhaps one should not be surprised to hear that for those taken captive, it is not the captors but the liberators who are the real object of hostility. No doubt the secretary did not really fear the police more than she did Khaalis; rather, she harbored a wish, so common among released hostages, to remain loyal to the notion of a “relationship” established between her captor and herself, a relationship which had, in this case, provided the promise of special protection in time of peril. That the source of her “protection” was also the sole source of her peril was, of course, the crucial truth from which the secretary, like other hostages before her, managed to keep her distance even after liberation.



Nor were the Washington hostages unique in this behavior, except perhaps in the degree to which their responses mocked reality (given the circumstances of the Hanafi assault, which was by far the cruelest and bloodiest of such events to date). In September 1976, a Serbo-Croatian “nationalist” group hijacked a jet full of passengers en route to Chicago from New York, and took those aboard on an odyssey first to Canada and then to Newfoundland, Iceland, and finally Paris. At Gander, the terrorists released twenty-five selected hostages, a number of whom promptly spoke up for the character of their hijackers and for their cause (Croatian independence from Yugoslavia), about which, some of them said regretfully, they had known nothing before. One passenger, the director of a medical foundation in Tucson, Arizona, said of the hijackers, “I wish them well. They had nothing against us but wanted only to get a story across.”

The hijackers had in fact not only got their story across—an act of publicization which included seizing an airplane and holding thirty-five people captive for several days—but in addition had planted a bomb which later killed a. New York City policeman. These facts notwithstanding, some of the passengers released at Gander explained that they had come to respect the hijackers—among other reasons, because they had sat with them during the flight and tried to explain their motives. This indispensable and by now hackneyed element in terrorist schemes is nevertheless one that clearly does not lose its power to flatter each new set of hostages with its suggestion of a “partnership,” of shared militance in a just cause.

As in Washington, so with the passengers released at Gander and Paris, anger was directed not toward those who had victimized them but, in this case, at one of their own number, a Roman Catholic priest. During the final part of the flight, with fuel running low and the hijackers’ tempers unsteady, the priest had begun to give the rites of absolution over the intercom; in addition, he had accused the hijackers of sinning by encroaching upon the rights of others. This behavior, the other passengers said on their release, had greatly angered them, and still angered them. For there they had sat, in “dialogue” with their captors—as they were later to remember, not without pride—when the priest had intruded with his accusations about the rights of others, his rites of absolution, his reminders, in short, of the cold reality lurking behind all their “dialogue”: that they had been subjugated by gunmen and that the price of this deed might well be their lives. That, once free, they should have most resented the one person who had failed to acquiesce in the standard of behavior imposed by the terrorists is perhaps less to be wondered at than the fact that they could still find no blame in their hearts for the hijackers.



Even when, as was true in the Washington episode, hostages had ample evidence of the brutality of which their captors were capable, an effort was made to find the positive side of events. In the second stage at Washington—the stage in which the hostages displace their captors and become themselves the leading communicants in the drama—the press elicited from the former prisoners a particularly long-running flow of commentary touching on the philosophical, sociological, and other lessons they had extracted from their experience. A stream-of-consciousness report by one hostage, which appeared in a New York newspaper, took heed of the camaraderie that had existed among black and white, Jewish and Christian prisoners held by the Hanafis at the B’nai B’rith offices. Having expressed his belief that the experience had confirmed “the human family’s” strength in adversity, the former hostage then recorded his attempts to understand the behavior of the Hanafis. He was puzzled that Hamaas Abdul Khaalis had singled out Jews for vilification and blame, since the Jews, he wrote, had felt only compassion for Khaalis when his wife and children were slain some years earlier. In this the writer attested, however unconsciously, to the enduring grip of a centerpiece of liberal-progressive orthodoxy—the notion that the reasons for criminal behavior are always of the first importance, and the faith that criminal behavior is always rooted in a social cause, which in this case the criminal only had failed to locate correctly.

In one way or another, most of the commentary on the Washington raids was informed by the same set of attitudes. Thus, during the siege itself, a program on Khaalis was featured on public television in New York. One of the journalists on the show spoke with considerable passion of Khaalis, describing him as a man who, having suffered a monumental tragedy in the bloody murder of his family by fellow Muslims, had found no way to make an indifferent society pay attention to him. Another member of the panel objected, mildly, that the killers of the Khaalis family had in fact been promptly caught, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment. This comment was received by the other panelists with grim patience, not unlike that which families reserve for the unsolicited irrelevancies of their eldest and faintly dotty members. Over and over, the commentators on this and other news programs preferred instead to cite the callousness of a society which had so far failed to serve the needs of one of its citizens as to provoke him to violent assault. Society, it was maintained, had failed to express adequately a sense of community with Khaalis after the murder of his wife and children; there had been a splurge of publicity, then the world had gone about its business. In an article in the Washington Post, a writer described how he used to drive past the house where Khaalis’s family had been killed and shudder, but no more than shudder; in the aftermath of the Hanafi rampage, he continued with remorse, “I give it [the murder of Khaalis’s family] the thought it deserves—too late. I feel sorry for the man.”



All these instances of hand-wringing over Khaalis on the part of the press are instances as well of the calamitous effect on public discourse of the last five decades of progressivist social rhetoric. It is, of course, true that the world inhabited by professional social commentators is different from that of most people, who more often than not have to bear the brunt and all the practical consequences of the idealism so freely espoused by the pundits. One has become accustomed to making the necessary mental adjustment between reality as it is perceived by most people and as it is seen by that special society of editorial writers and “advocacy” journalists whose business it is to serve as the nation’s liberal conscience. What is new and noteworthy is the spectacle of ordinary citizens, such as some released hostages, responding to the direct experience of victimization in the same cant phrases. In New York recently, a gunman held several officials of the Housing and Development Administration at gunpoint while making known his demands, which included $500,000 for a Muslim mosque and the suspension of city parking rules on Muslim holidays. During the five-hour ordeal the gunman offered the obligatory explanation of his “motives” to his hostages: he had, he informed them, earlier that day been evicted from his apartment. Upon release, one former hostage observed that the ordeal had been nerve-wracking but that he did not doubt that the Muslim was justified in his complaints. “I regret that much of his social complaints are valid and accurate,” this man noted. “His people have been discriminated against. I’m a Jew and I’ve been discriminated against all my life. I suppose his act has social value.”

What is one to make of the wealth of good will and understanding exhibited by citizens of a democracy toward those who have robbed them of their freedom, terrorized and humiliated them? In what tradition can one set the behavior of citizens who, having passed through extreme danger and suffering, choose (once the danger is past) to deny the criminal nature of their captors in order to affirm approved social attitudes? It is impossible, when hearing the comments of some released hostages, to avoid the conclusion that the well-known reverence for “openness” and “dialogue” endemic among Americans—as was evidenced perhaps most vividly by the remarks of the hostages at Gander—has taken a terrible toll both of their capacity to perceive reality and, not least, of their moral sense. No one would expect hostages to resist their captors openly, to undertake battle with men armed with machetes and guns, or do anything other than what the hostages in Washington and elsewhere did, which was to obey orders and stay alive. It is, however, fair to expect that after their danger is safely past hostages might avail themselves of the single form of resistance still remaining, which is to refuse to accede in retrospect to the aims of those who have victimized them. Instead, in episode after episode recently, a significant number of released hostages have tacitly continued to acquiesce in a design the sole purpose of which is the further dissemination of the terrorists’ “message.”

No less a personage than the captain himself of the airplane hijacked by the Croatian nationalists said to his passengers, at the end of that episode: “We have all been through an incredible experience. But it is over for us. No one is hurt. However, it is not over for our hijackers. Their ordeal is just beginning. They have a cause. They are brave, committed people. Idealistic, dedicated people. Like the people who helped to shape our country. They are trying to do the same for theirs. I think we should give them a hand.”1

Now, it can be argued that the newly released hostage who expresses understanding for his captor reacts as he does merely out of a surfeit of gratitude and good feeling, and out of the joy of being alive—all understandable emotions after such an ordeal. And it is the case, of course, that gratitude (including gratitude to their former captors for not doing worse than they did) played no small part in the responses of all these hostages. What is at issue here is not their gratitude but its peculiar nature, a sympathy for their captor and his cause which approaches ideological collaboration. In contemporary double-talk, to express understanding for the criminal is to take sides, to take sides with him and against his victim, and this the hostages did when they were no longer themselves victims; at that point, after society had brought all its machinery to bear on their release, they took the side of the terrorists against society itself, and hence against the future victims of terrorist acts.

By their expressions of sympathy, by their understanding consideration of their captors’ past history, by their elaborate and respectful ruminations on the logic which had moved the terrorists to act as they did, the released hostages affirmed a principle which for some time now has been clear to the fanatic element in America: that those who undertake the terrorist mode can count on certain sizable rewards, among them the conversion of victims into allies (rather then enemies), of captives into publicists (rather than witnesses for the prosecution). The secretary in Washington who had witnessed brutality after brutality visited on others but who nevertheless did not fail to testify that her former captor was a sensitive, compassionate man; the foundation head from Tucson and the pilot of the plane who, upon being liberated, commenced to offer their good wishes to the Croatian hijackers and the good cause they represented; the HDA official in New York, offering public approval of the “social value” of his captor’s deed—all these, in attesting to their own “advanced” attitudes of social awareness and responsibility, display an utter indifference to any but their own concerns and enhance the prospects that others will some day undergo agonies such as the ones they themselves endured, and possibly worse. It is “enlightened” attitudes like these that make a mockery of the idea of social conscience.


1 Quoted in Richard Brockman, “Notes on Being Hijacked,” Atlantic, December 1976.

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