FIVE, SIX, SEVEN times a year, a few Americans are taken hostage in foreign countries. Each time there is a national shock and uproar.
In the midst of the outrage, however, the hostage mode of politicking proceeds. The terrorists take as their hostages the anonymous and the vulnerable, and then they reveal their plans for the future of the world. Even as we deplore terrorism, we accept the familiar structure of the event: the helpless hostage, the momentarily helpless Powers- That-Be, and the gloating, talkative villains, well-publicized and quite anxious to be articulate before they are, inevitably, compromised.
There's nothing new here, of course. Five, six, seven times a night over the last 40 years, someone has been held hostage. Hostage-taking has been the customary tactic of cinematic criminals caught in desperate straits, of radio spies at wits' end, of television villains who cannot otherwise defend themselves against bionic men and superwomen.
The tactic works, for a while. Then, inevitably, the criminals are distracted, the spies outwitted, the villains euchred, and the hostages escape unharmed. But not before we see the gloating, talkative villains proudly lay out their plans. Nothing like a good chat just before the apocalypse.
Five, six, seven times a month on the floor of the Congress, millions of Americans are held hostage. Hostage-taking has been a customary tactic of senators who have no hope of getting a bill through the legislative mill on its own merits, of representatives so much in the minority that their own proposals would not otherwise see the light of day.
They therefore attach irrelevant riders to other programs -- no urban renewal without a school prayer amendment, no food relief without a change in abortion funding, no medical insurance without a local boondoggle back home.
For weeks or months they may hold hostage people of inner cities, the hungry, the poor and the sick, while advancing their own plots. Like cinematic criminals, they most often hold hostage those who are the weakest and most vulnerable in our society: children, single parents, unwed mothers, ghetto families, immigrants. And like the television villains, they take volubly to this momentary limelight, more than a little eager to explain their visions of piety and justice. They are holding millions hostage, of course, for the greater good.
The recent decade of hostage incidents is but the reflection, in miniature, of a domestic and an international hostagism which since the Second World War has underlain most high politicking. The Cold War began in the West with the fixed image that Eastern Europe was being held hostage behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union.
Theorists of Mutual Assured Destruction have counted on holding hostage hundreds of millions of civilians; each side allows its most vulnerable members to stand as cheap surety against nuclear war.
Hostagism is so much and so unconscious a part of our lives that our shock at each new hostage incident can best be understood as a form of denial. We do not want to admit that what we see as freak incidents are actually part of our conventional way of conducting affairs.
Indeed, we have embraced a mode of political and social maneuvering which hinges on the constant possibility of hostage- taking for personal or partisan profit. We have encouraged desires for and notions of national invulnerability, such that the only workable tactic toward negotiation would seem to be hostagism. And, time and time again, we have allowed the most vulnerable to be used as hostages overseas, at home, in movie houses and on television.
This is a modern phenomenon. Through to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, hostages were neither anonymous nor random. They had to be personages significant enough to guarantee that promises would be kept or concessions made. They were major personalities and players in their own right (princes, princesses, community leaders), and they were not taken but given as surety. Noblewomen in particular were used as permanent sureties; rulers married off their princesses to foreign heirs in order to keep the peace or cement the treaty. Passive yet politically valuable, weak yet socially desirable, noblewomen were considered ideal objects of exchange.
Now, however, hostages are often as not innocent of political power or social prestige. The typical hostage is physically, psychologically and socially the ideal American hero or heroine, that common everyday sort of person who rises to an extraordinary occasion. Where before the hostage was someone generally born to greatness, our new hostages have greatness thrust upon them.
It is a curious commentary on modern times that hostagism tends to make celebrities out of pawns. The decade of publicity about prisoners of war in Vietnam is a particularly good example of the connection between hostagism and hero-making. The POWs have become American heroes precisely because they have been used as political pawns; those few, such as some during the Korean war, who have occasionally spoken up on behalf of their captors have lost their hostage status, their vulnerability, and any claim to the heroic.
More recently, during the TWA hostage crisis, Allyn Conwell met with increasing suspicion when he took an active part in negotiations. Then Middle Eastern hostage Benjamin Weir, on his release from captivity in Lebanon, drew fire for his conciliatory gestures.
We distrust hostages who become too active, who interfere with the familiar structure of the hostage event, or who escape "by themselves" and speak their minds. They have undermined a prime mode of politicking. Perhaps they are really agents for the other side?
We should rather be alarmed by the passivity of hostages and the integral deceit of every rescue. Hostage events on the nightly news play out and play upon the vulnerability of the hostages and the clever tricks of the rescuers who disguise themselves as airplane mechanics or garbage men.
Hostagism reflects and promotes bad faith. Where hostages are anonymous and random and expected to remain passive in the midst of their celebrity, the drama of the event centers on the usually exorbitant claims of the hostage-takers and the anticipated ruses of the Powers-That-Be.
We have been taught by 40 years of studio thrillers and studio news that hostages are usually rescued by surprise, subterfuge, and deceit. For instance, the driver of the airport shuttle bus in "Dog Day Afternoon" turns out to be an FBI agent who shoots to kill. The criminals, spies or villains who in moments of desperation use innocent passersby as shields for their escapes never do, finally, escape. There is always, at last, a successful trick, some kind of neat double-cross by which the unquestionably good guys win. It is foolish to be pleased or comfortable with foreign policies or defense policies that carry with them the deep, unspoken premise of an ultimate bad faith.
Hostagism and bad faith reach from the basement bunkers of terrorists to the international summit. The "Star Wars" proposal has been so much an issue for the Soviets because it puts in immediate question a balance of power which is founded upon a balance of hostages. As long as an equal number or proportion of passive, vulnerable civilians remains hostage to each side, Mutual Assured Destruction assures (we suppose, in the fine tradition of hostagism) a mutual stand-off. If, however, there were a space shield arching above an inviolate America, the balance of hostages would be lost.
Regardless of the degree to which a space shield might be workable, and regardless of Pentagon arguments that the Soviets already have in place antisatellite and anti missile systems (or shields) of their own, we should be wary of any diplomacy based upon the principles of hostagism.
During an unusually bellicose speech for someone on an international mission of peace, the most gracious and specific offer President Reagan could think to make on Nov. 14th was the exchange of students and artists between the United States and the Soviet Union. This pre-summit gesture met with favorable response not because it was innovative or perfectly suited to the political instant but because it was perfectly suited to the hostage mode of politicking. It simply proposed a mild return to the older style where hostages were given, or traded, as international sureties of good will and peaceful enterprise, as in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
We think now to use students and artists as temporary objects of exchange because they too, in the 1980s, are relatively passive, politically weak and admirable creatures. They will make good hostages. We will likely call them ambassadors of good will.
Modern hostagism poisons diplomacy with its assumption of bad faith. Terrorists and secretaries of state may use different rhetoric, but they share the same root metaphors of taking, holding, and speaking. It is as if, no matter who we are, no one will listen to us unless we have put someone else in jeopardy.
Those hundreds of thousands who suffered through the Ethiopian famine were in great measure the victims of such bad faith. They were used as hostages to draw publicity to a political dispute across little-known and less-understood borders. Their relief itself became an opportunity for air time for all parties in the Sudan and Ethiopia. They were to both rebels and the powers-that-be almost a godsend.
And if ambassadors, heads of state and the A-team can take hostages, why should not parents fighting custody cases use children as convenient hostages, or financiers hold hostage small companies in their bids for corporate takeovers?
It is beginning to look like a Dog Day Afternoon.