Kidnapping, coercion, and mind control: Jill Carroll, and the strange case of Patty Hearst (Part I)
[Part II can be found here.]
The Jill Carroll kidnapping was dreadful from the very beginning: watching videos of the young woman, pleading and crying; imagining the emotional state of her family and friends, and most especially her parents; trying to keep out of one's mind the sad and horrific ending of so many hostages, including another journalist, Daniel Pearl.
No, it was almost unbearable to think about, and the only good thing seemed to be that, as time went on, there was at least a tiny bit of reason to believe that if her kidnappers hadn't yet killed her, perhaps she might be released or even rescued.
And then came the good--no, the wonderful!--news: Carroll had been released. Along with that news was another video, this one of the Christian Science Monitor reporter criticizing US actions in Iraq and praising her captors. The video seemed to trigger a great deal of skepticism and anger: speculation that Carroll had staged her own kidnapping, that she'd actually been an Islamist sympathizer to begin with, or that she'd succumbed to Stockholm syndrome and gone over to the dark side.
Dr. Sanity writes with great clarity about Carroll and the criticism of her, here, as does Cori Dauber, here. According to Dr. Sanity:
I am of the opinion that people who are kidnapped and held prisoner have to survive. It should be understood that they are permitted by all rational people to say whatever they need to say in order to stay alive. We should assume that anything such captives say is said under duress and they should be confident that we will understand that. Jill Carroll was under duress. Thus, I think we must not judge Jill Carroll for anything she may have said to her captors in any videotape she made with them before her release.
The same is true, I might add, about her hedginess in a video made immediately after her release, for Iraqi TV, when she had not yet been debriefed and did not feel safe.
The harsh criticism that some have leveled towards Carroll reflects two things. The first is the fact that there have been a number of kidnappings in which the hostages (mostly NGO workers from other countries) seem to have been complicit in their own abductions, as well as the fact that some journalists are sympathetic to the terrorist (or "insurgent") cause and bitterly opposed to the US actions in Iraq. So an attitude of skepticism, a sort of "co-conspirator until proven otherwise" attitude, has spring up on the part of many observers who have become cynical about these things.
The second is an older notion: people would often rather believe that they themselves would hold firm under any conditions--that they would never crack, nor would they make a video that would compromise their true beliefs.
For most people (unless they happen to be Navy Seals) this is balderdash, a form of grandiosity, and a denial of major proportions. But we all like to think we are (or would be, if given the opportunity) heroes, of the mind, spirit, and body.
The truth is that, short of undergoing special training or being an extraordinarily special person, we are all susceptible to coercion of the type Jill Carroll no doubt faced. And even if she had been treated well by her captors--as she stated in her video and the later Iraqi television interview (both of which Carroll now disavows)--the mere fact of having been kidnapped and held at the mercy of a shadowy bunch of unpredictable and violent people (after all, they had murdered her translator during the kidnapping, someone with whom she probably was fairly close) would be enough in and of itself to cause extreme psychological trauma in the average person.
This trauma can cause a host of reactions, which depend on details of the situation, the psyche of the hostage, and the techniques and goals of the kidnappers. Stockholm syndrome, for example, is a bonding with a kidnapper that at times happens naturally as a result of the hostage situation itself, and the almost childlike state of dependency it can engender in the hostage, who becomes grateful at not having been treated even worse. Then there is simple coercion: kidnappers who force the hostage to do or say certain things with the threat of physical punishment (or even death) for failure to cooperate.
By far the most comprehensive process is brainwashing, in which there is a systematic attempt by the kidnapper (or jailer, in a prisoner of war camp) to restructure the belief system of the captive and spark a political and social conversion towards the mindset of the enemy.
From the information we have so far, according to Carroll's own statements, it seems that it was the second process, that of coercion, most likely to have been operating in her case:
The night before journalist Jill Carroll's release, her captors said they had one final demand as the price of her freedom: She would have to make a video praising her captors and attacking the United States, according to Jim Carroll.
In a long phone conversation with his daughter on Friday, Mr. Carroll says that Jill was "under her captor's control."
Ms. Carroll had been their captive for three months and even the smallest details of her life - what she ate and when, what she wore, when she could speak - were at her captors' whim. They had murdered her friend and colleague Allan Enwiya, "she had been taught to fear them," he says. And before making one last video the day before her release, she was told that they had already killed another American hostage.
That video appeared Thursday on a jihadist website that carries videos of beheadings and attacks on American forces. In it, Carroll told her father she felt compelled to make statements strongly critical of President Bush and his policy in Iraq.
Of course, we may never know Carroll's true feelings in the matter, but I see no reason not to give her the benefit of the doubt and accept her words at face value, since they were recanted relatively quickly. And the truth is that, although we may not like to admit it, the vast majority of people would probably have done the same, knowing that once they were freed they could tell the truth.
A personal note: these issues have always been of great interest to me. Even as a child--through old World War II films? rumors of things that had happened during the Korean War? learning about concentration camps at a young age?--I had a fascination with people's ability to withstand psychological and physical duress and even torture.
In fact, as a very young child, perhaps ten years old or so, I actually purchased a book called The Rape of the Mind: the psychology of thought control, menticide, and brainwashing (yes indeed, I was a strange child; what can I say?). Aside from serving as fodder for many of my Cold War nightmares, it didn't give me what I was searching for: a foolproof method for resistance if I happened to end up in a prisoner of war camp. But in its detailed descriptions of the sort of pressure that could be brought to bear to make even the strongest of men crack, it gave me a lifelong appreciation of the power of coercion.
That same appreciation was operating in my reaction to what was arguably the most famous political kidnapping/coercion case of the twentieth century. I refer, of course, to the saga of Patty Hearst.
To those of you were weren't alive then, and who perhaps have only a glancing familiarity with the case, it's hard to convey just how very famous Patty Hearst became, and what a deep effect her story had on the American psyche of the time. OJ was nothing compared to Patty; her story became a lightning rod for much of the anger, confusion, and cross-generational enmity that was roiling around in those years.
The basic facts are these: Patty Hearst was a 19-year-old Berkeley student and heiress to the Hearst fortune when gunmen broke into her apartment, beat her boyfriend severely, and kidnapped her in February of 1974. Sympathy was high for the fragile-looking and pretty young girl, and for her suffering parents, who distributed six million dollars of food to the poor at the request of her kidnappers in a vain attempt to gain her release.
There were no 24-hour cable news networks at the time, but coverage was heavy and the story saturated the airways and the press. A special feature that drew much attention was the release of many audiotapes featuring Patty repeating the terrorists' demands; we all grew familiar with her eerily calm and relatively affectless voice.
But the nation was stunned, and sympathy for Patty quickly evaporated (although sympathy for her parents increased, if anything) when she was photographed during a bank robbery, holding a gun and looking tough:
The shocks kept coming. A further tape featured Patty saying:
that she and her "comrades" had robbed the bank. "My gun was loaded," she claimed, "and at no time did any of my comrades intentionally point their guns at me." Their actions were justified to finance "the revolution." She called her parents "pigs," dismissed her fiancé, and then said, "As for being brainwashed, the idea is ridiculous to the point of being beyond belief." She ended by declaring that "I am a soldier of the people's army."
I wish I could offer a link to an actual recording of her voice, because I'm convinced that something about it--a certain snotty casualness, a cadence of disdain, an almost Valley Girl emptiness--caused people's blood to boil on hearing it. And then, later, still another tape was released, in which Hearst declared:
I've been given the choice of one, being released in a safe area, or two, joining forces with the Symbionese Liberation Army and fighting for my freedom and the freedom of all oppressed people. I have chosen to stay and fight.
The rhetoric was perfect, and it was utterly convincing. Patty took the revolutionary name "Tania," (after a female associate of Che Guevara's--good old Che, he's always in the picture) and posed wearing a fetching beret, looking very thin. It was one of the first examples of radical chic I ever saw:
The reaction to the robbery, the photos, and Patty's declaration was electric. Hatred for her grew, even among those who'd been predisposed to sympathize before. As for me, I didn't know what to believe about her sincerity. But--perhaps because of my background in reading about brainwashing and thought control--I thought the most likely explanation was that some sort of process of coercion had gone on. After all, she'd been an impressionable young girl, not even out of her teens, subjected to a horrific experience and under the total control of people who were both extraordinarily violent and politically inclined. Why would they not have made every effort to brainwash her, and what possible strength could she have drawn on that would have enabled her to successfully resist?
But when I tried to argue that these things were even a possibility I was shouted down. I seemed to be in an extreme minority. I vividly recall attending a dinner with my parents and about four other couples who were their friends--liberal Democrats all, people with children roughly around the age of Patty Hearst. I'd known all these people my entire life and had never had a political argument or even a disagreement with them, and they'd always seemed to be relatively mild-mannered. Several of them were in the field of social work, a profession that one might think would predispose them towards sympathy for Patty's plight.
But no. In fact, the topic of Patty brought out a surprising rage in them. If Patty were ever to be captured, she should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There was absolutely no possibility, they screamed at me, that she hadn't done all of this of her own free will, and there should be no excuses made. I was a gullible fool.
It seemed to me that all the frustrations of parents of the 60s and early 70s towards the excesses of their offspring--the long hair and the pot-smoking and the open sexuality and the music and the refusal to follow in those parents' footsteps and become doctors and lawyers and upstanding community members; the turning on and the dropping out and the living on the hippie communes, as one of my cousins had done (although her parents didn't even know it was actually a naked hippie commune)--everything these parents had been swallowing, all the rage and confusion and hurt they hadn't fully expressed towards their ungrateful children, was coming out in one great big rush at Patty Hearst, who symbolized it all.
I decided to wait and reserve judgment. As it turned out, I had a long time to wait.
[To be continued in Part II, tomorrow....]