After visiting some of the 50 Americans being held hostage in Tehran, Rep. George Hansen reported that they appeared healthy and that they were being treated well.
President Carter disagreed. "The hostages are not being treated well," he said. "They have been kept bound, with hands and feet tied. . . . They have not been permitted to speak a word. When they have spoken, to say, 'Good morning' or 'Good luck,' they have been punished."
Which source are we to believe?
Perhaps we can say that the hostages are being treated well under the circumstance -- the circumstance being the threat of death. They are being fed and, however much their captors constrict their movements, the 50 Americans live. Humans are such adaptable creatures! History has taught us we can learn to live under almost any conditions. My own experience as a hostage proved that to me.
I was one of the hundred-some bewildered men and women taken hostage when an armed band of Hanafi Muslims seized the B'nai B'rith Building in Washington in March 1977. According to the newspapers, we were treated well -- after all, our captors had spared our lives and after 39 hours had released us into the arms of our families.
But how well is well?
I must answer that, by definition, hostages are never treated well. Good treatment does not consist of being held at gunpoint and receiving constant threats of death. To be a hostage is to undergo an exercise in terror. No matter how many amenities the captor provides -- bathroom privileges, meals, occasional exercise -- the hostage remains subject to the captors' will. One hopes that terrorists who choose to hold hostages -- rather than kill them -- will offer them food and basic comforts. One prays the terorists will refrain from beating hostages or in other ways harming them physically. The hostages will be grateful for such restraint. But the hostages, who come to feel that every minute more that they live depends on, or is a gift from, their captors, will be most grateful of all to receive their freedom.
The hours of captivity become a time of interminable waiting. Endless minutes become the hours of unending days. Hostages have only prayer, worry, sleep, hope, despair with which to occupy themselves. Thoughts circle around the questions: What will become of me, of us? How many of us -- if any -- will leave our prison alive?
In the acute isolation of their captivity, hostages know only what their jailers tell them. They become uncertain if anyone knows -- or cares -- that they are being held under the threat of death. When I was released, for instance, one of my first questions was: did the papers cover this? I had no idea that the country's attention had been riveted on the Hanafi Muslim siege of three Washington buildings for the preceding two days.
Under such intense psychological pressure -- another name for terror -- some hostages may break. Probably they will remain calm and quiet. The physician examining me upon my release discovered that my blood pressure was dangerously close to that of a patient who had gone into shock.
Nor must we forget the families of the hostages. They share the trauma of waiting, of not knowing what the outcome will be or when the siege will end. It may hearten them to know that every effort is being made to help deliver the hostages to freedom. It may help, too, to talk to the families of other hostages, people who will better understand their fears. But time crawls. Life does not seem to go on. What is to be done? Nothing, except to wait.
This is what I experienced, witnessed and heard from my family after I was held hostage for 39 hours. What must be the psychological toll that the 50 Americans in Tehran will pay after five weeks -- and still counting -- of such "good" treatment?
I was held hostage for less than two days, yet I expect to dream of it the rest of my life. Two-and-a-half years later, nightmares still visit some of the B'nai B'rith hostages.
And what about the American hostages in Tehran? I only hope that they will be released to have such nightmares.