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Top Ten Things You Learn From a Hostage Situation

Sometimes it just ain’t easy working for the State Department. If you go through the lengthy history of the Foreign Service in the second half of the 20th Century, there are a surprising number of diplomats who have been held hostage. And while the situations and political context are very different, certain things do stand out.

Check out 8 Weird Things You Didn’t Know About American Diplomats

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Rule One:  Don’t expect any logic

This comes from a guy who could write a book on being a hostage (actually he’s written several books on Iran, but we digress.) Hostage situations by definition are chaotic and don’t run according to plan. John Limbert, one of the 52 hostages held in Tehran, mentions that after he and other hostages were blindfolded and taken across the U.S. embassy compound, they quickly realized that the students who were in charge didn’t know what they were going to do next. After about a month and a half, he was taken to his office in the embassy for interrogation. The man had a burn bag on his head so he wouldn’t be recognized. Limbert thought to himself  “Now what’s wrong with this picture? I’m supposed to have the burn bag over my head, not him!”

And of course a lot of people expected these incidents to be over quickly. They often aren’t.


Keep busy. Live one hour at a time

It will help you maintain your sanity. Also, you just don’t know how long you’ll be there. When the consulate in Mukden (now Shenyang), China was surrounded by the Communists in 1948, the first time a U.S. diplomatic mission had ever been held hostage, the Consul General had the staff  move bags of flour to one room only to move them back to another room several weeks later. People didn’t like it at the time but in retrospect, they recognized the routine helped preserve some sense of normalcy.  Limbert read. A lot. After about six weeks in captivity, he realized things weren’t going to be resolved anytime soon when he got a Care package for Christmas: “There were some books in it and the books were things like War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Middlemarch, average length about 1100 pages. And I’m thinking, “Someone is trying to tell me something.” Mike Mitrenko, another Iranian hostage, notes that he would do a thousand sit-ups and run in place for up two hours a day just to have a routine and tire himself out so he could sleep.  


Think happy thoughts, or at least thoughts that make you smile.

A good thing, even when you’re not a hostage. Limbert received a letter from a kid, who wrote him as part of a class project:  “I know how you must feel as a prisoner. After all, I’m in the second grade.” Mike Hoyt, who was held hostage with more than 300 people for 111 days in the Congo in 1964, told his ambassador, whom he despised because he had ordered Hoyt to stay at the consulate which led to his capture, that “One thing kept us going was the thought that if we got ours, you’d get it too.”  Hey, whatever works.

On that note,  if they’re giving you food, take it and survive for yet another day. If they wanted to kill you, they wouldn’t have to slowly poison you to do so. The corollary to that is if they are moving you to another location or giving you a medical exam, it could be a sign the end game is approaching. Or they’re playing mind games with you (see below).


They will screw with your mind.

The Iranian hostages describe being taken down to a basement at 2 a.m. and lined up against a wall. Most were convinced they were going to be executed then and there. But after the captors fired a few blanks, they were taken back to their rooms. Limbert still doesn’t understand why they did it.  Hoyt describes how the Congolese rebels would execute people by throwing them over a waterfall and have them eaten by crocodiles.  Personally, I’d prefer the more traditional firing squad.


You can screw with their mind (not recommended for beginners).

Limbert, a fluent Farsi speaker, talks about the time he saw one of the captors wearing a jacket that had obviously been stolen from one of the hostages. He told him that his prayers now were useless since he had committed a crime.  Elden Erickson  in Mukden said they would mock the Chinese guards outside the consulate by yelling “hsiao palu” (“little Communist”) at them. One of the more famous acts of protest was from the crew of the USS Pueblo, who was held hostage for a year by the North Koreans. The North Koreans insisted on taking a photo of them to show they were unharmed in the communist utopia; the crew posed but gave them the finger (later explained away to their captors as a “Hawaiian good luck gesture.”)


Pray that the Powers That Be will negotiate.

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists” – that’s the standard line often used by the U.S. government AND PRACTICALLY EVERY MOVIE EVER MADE DEALING WITH TERRORISTS.  If you don’t believe me, check out this link (some lang NFSW). There’s Tom Cruise in a fat suit from Tropic Thunder, a Bond film, Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, The Simpsons, a Chuck Norris movie (of course) and a bunch of other movies with guys speaking in British accents (I’m sure you’ll tell us what’s what in the comments section below).

And hey, we get it. If you negotiate, you may end up paying ransom, which only encourages them to take more hostages and more ransom. It’s a vicious circle. Or you can be real sincere about trying to talk to the other side and they’re just not in the mood. Limbert describes how when the mob attacked the embassy and the staff was behind a locked door, he volunteered to go outside the armored door to convince the crowd to leave. After several minutes of talking, they didn’t leave, but instead held a gun to his head and said they would kill him if the embassy staff didn’t open the door, which they eventually did.  Limbert called it “probably one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done in my Foreign Service career.”

Problem is, the No Negotiations Over My Dead Body has a tendency to result in dead bodies. It’s what happened in Khartoum, Sudan, when Black October kidnapped an entire reception. The U.S. ambassador and the deputy chief of mission were killed within hours. Others were released within a few days. Mike Hoyt, the captive in the Congo, makes a good case for negotiation. As he points out, police stateside negotiate with criminals all the time. If they’re talking, at least they’re not killing anyone.  President Carter took a lot of heat for negotiating during the Iran Hostage Crisis and it took more than a year but at least they all came home. Peru’s Fujimori kept the lines of communication open so he could bide for time after terrorists seized the Japanese ambassador’s residence during a large reception (see below).

The thing about negotiations, of course, is that they’re not very dramatic and are often very frustrating because they can drag out for an awfully long time. The staff at Mukden was finally released after 13 months, the Iranian hostages after 444 days, the crew from the USS Pueblo after nearly a year.

And if you do negotiate, get leverage. When Japanese Red Army terrorists in 1975 took over the 9th floor of a building housing five embassies, including that of the United States and Japan, Malaysian authorities cut the power to make the hostage takers sweat (literally). Carter froze Iranian assets, which surprised the hell out of the Iranians because they didn’t see that coming.


If you’re going to do something gutsy to rescue the captives, DON’T SCREW IT UP.

Carter sent in Delta Force in 1980 to save the Iranian hostages; the result was a massive crash, several dead soldiers and international embarrassment. The only good that came out of it was the military manned up and established the kick-ass Special Forces units that we have today. Fujimori, who definitely had his problems, trained his own commandos for months, brought in indigenous miners to dig tunnels under the very house where the captives were held and then BLEW UP A HOLE in the living room floor so the commandos could enter guns a-blazin’.  Needless to say, none of the terrorists survived.


Just because you’ve gone through the emotional wringer and peered into the depth of the abyss, don’t expect much support from your government.

In Malaysia, the U.S. embassy officials – the guys on the ground actually dealing with the terrorists – were worried that if anything went wrong, Washington would do its typical Washington thing by washing its hands of the incident and have the people in the field take the fall. Hey, you don’t want them ruining their career, now do you? Mitrenko said he was never disappointed with the government’s response in the Iran hostage crisis because he expected nothing from it. I guess that’s one way to look at it.

The corollary to that is, if you’re a family member, you’ll have to do something on your own to preserve your sanity.  In the shorter crises, there will be the consolation from government officials, the expressions of concern from colleagues and acquaintances.  And of course, the media.  But if it should drag on for a few months, people’s attention spans will wane and the media will focus on The Next Big Thing. That means you need to be your own life preserver. Penny Laingen, Bruce’s wife, eventually started the Yellow Ribbon campaign, which to this day is a tradition for those waiting for people to return home. And oh yeah, she threw darts at a Khomeini dartboard.  Like we said, whatever helps.


After it’s all over, don’t judge yourself.

These wise words are from the psychiatrist who worked with the New York Police Department, specializing in victims of violence and the reaction of victims of violence, to Limbert right after his release. The psychiatrist added that “You may have had expectations of how should have acted and maybe you were not as heroic as you thought you should have been. Do not set expectations for yourself which you cannot meet, because you will always be criticizing, and judging yourself.”


If you’re lucky, the book and/or movie that comes out of the ordeal won’t suck.

For some reason, you’d think that given all the drama in a hostage crisis, there would be a few good movies that come out of them. But with a few exceptions, not really. Probably because watching people sit and worry, while nerve-racking for the captives, isn’t that exciting for moviegoers.

There was Four Days in September, a Brazilian film, with Alan Arkin portraying the U.S. ambassador who was kidnapped in the 1970s, and though it won a few international awards, it never did anything in the U.S. Of course, that movie had a unique twist – one of Burke Elbrick’s captors later wrote a book about the experience and won election to Parliament. So for him at least, there was life after a hostage crisis (though the State Department will not issue him a visa to travel to the U.S.)

Big exceptions are Bel Canto, based on the Peruvian incident, which won a PEN/Faulkner award for best novel, and of course Argo, which also starred Alan Arkin (we don’t know if that means anything other than the fact that he’s been in a lot of movies) and won Best Picture. So if you’re patient and wait 20 or 30 years, things can turn out OK.

At least if you’re Ben Affleck.