Wednesday, September 29, 2004


It is always difficult to watch the basic hostage and ransom situation play out. Particularly when the goal is apparently nothing more than an attempt to use the life of a helpless person as a means to gain some publicity. The sad part of it all is that we unnecessarily allow ourselves to be victimized by it.

Let's take a look at the power distribution in the typical situation. The extortionist has complete power over the hostage. Whether they live, die, or suffer is completely in his hands. Even if all his demands are met, there is no way to assure that he won't kill the hostage anyway. (Actually it is probably safer for him to do so since it eliminates a witness.) The extortionist needs to give the illusion that he can be controlled in order to induce others to take the actions he is trying to achieve.
"I have your husband and I will kill him if I don't get a million dollars."

"When and where can we pick up the body?"

"You don't seem to understand. He's not dead yet but he will be if I don't get the money."

"For all I know I could give you the money and you would kill him anyway. So whether I do or not doesn't matter. Now where did you say you were going to leave the body and when will it be available?"

"Don't you love your husband and want him back?"

"Sure I do, but I'm not the one who is holding a gun to his head. Whatever happens to him is now ultimately your decision not mine. I have no power over you. I have no reason to believe that you would honor any agreement. You've got him, he's your problem. You have some other problems as well. There are people out there following clues and looking for you. They might get lucky and find you. If they do and you don't hurt anybody you'll most likely get to live. But if you try to fight them when they come you'll most likely get killed. Seems to me your best choice is to let my husband go and disappear now, if possible. If they find you, your best choice would be to release my husband unharmed and surrender peacably. Everything else is bad for you. You decide."
It astounds me that no one has taken that track with the Iraqi hostage takers. I wonder if the Breslan incident would have been less horrific if this approach had been used.

The same thing generally applies to folks who threaten suicide as a way to manipulate the people around them. If you make it clear that the only person who controls the trigger is them they lose their ability to manipulate. When the manipulation fails to happen there is no point to continuing to threaten.

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