Painful Lessons: Hostage-Taking and US Foreign Policy

By Anderson, Terry | Harvard International Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Painful Lessons: Hostage-Taking and US Foreign Policy


Anderson, Terry, Harvard International Review


TERRY ANDERSON is Associate Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was held hostage in Lebanon by the Hezbullah between 1985 and 1991.

A decade ago, the fate of a dozen or so American hostages in Lebanon riveted the country, preoccupied the State Department, and even threatened the White House. During my seven years as one of those prisoners, my sister, Peggy Say, campaigned tirelessly for my freedom, commanded audiences at the White House and the Vatican, and garnered near-daily television coverage. By contrast, today, with nearly as many Americans

kidnapped in Colombia and others taken in Chechnya and Kashmir, few people in or out of government show any sign of concern. For the past five years, Tania Rich, Nancy Mankins, and Patti Tenenoff have sought to publicize the plight of their missionary husbands, held hostage by Colombian leftist guerillas. However, unlike my sister, these women have been granted only brief meetings with low-level State Department officials and few chances to speak out. Why has the United States changed its attitude toward citizens who experience difficulties overseas? What have we learned, or forgotten, from the pain and humiliation suffered by so many individuals over so many years?

Although profit has replaced politics as a motive for kidnapping, official US policy toward hostage-taking has remained virtually the same since the 1970s. The State Department's official fact sheet on American hostages articulates the government's current position: "Based upon past experience, the US government concluded that paying ransom or making other concessions to terrorists in exchange for the release of hostages increases the danger that others will be taken hostage. The US government policy is, therefore, to reject any demands for ransom, prisoner exchanges, and deals with terrorists in exchange for hostage release. At the same time, the US government will make every effort, including contact with representatives of the captors, to obtain the release of the hostages without paying ransom, exchanging prisoners, etc."

In actuality, the US government has followed a rather contradictory policy regarding interactions with terrorists. Over the past 20 years, officials have made both public and secret deals with terrorists in certain instances. At other times, they have refused to even contemplate any form of contact without the immediate and unconditional release of the American hostages. What has determined the differences in the US response? I argue that the government has not always followed policy or principle in handling hostage situations. Convenience, geography, and especially politics have played the more important roles. Still, the United States has learned several important lessons over the decades, and blunders of the past are less likely to occur today. Americans held overseas can expect much less attention from their government today than in the past.

Important Distinctions

Many distinctions exist between the various hostage-taking incidents of the past 20 years. Motives for terrorist acts vary from organization to organization. A hostage incident may involve demands for money or for recognition, complicated and difficult political or ideological goals, or no goals at all. Furthermore, methods of kidnapping differ. Thus, general conclusions or characterizations of these situations are virtually useless, and lessons are very difficult to draw.

Professional hostage negotiators and analysts note two common hostage-taking scenarios. In the first situation, the distinguishing feature is that the kidnapper and his hostages remain fixed in place, surrounded by police and security forces who control the environment. During a bank robbery, for instance, the robber takes customers and staff hostage in a fixed location and demands a free escape from the premises. Another comparable example is an airplane hijacking, where the terrorists threaten passengers if a certain party does not meet their demands--anything from money to the release of prisoners. …

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