Many of the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran coped with their captivity by manipulating their comparatively naive Moslem captors, according to a U.S. State Department psychiatrist who examined the freed Americans in Wiesbaden, West Germany.
Dr. Elmore Rigamer, one of a 24-member mental health team sent to Wiesbaden, said in an interview that some of the hostages recognized that those holding the embassy were really amateurs at terrorism and capitalized on their knowledge of the Persian language or of Iranian and Moslem customs to deal with the militants.
The "ingenious coping mechanisms" employed by the Americans, Rigamer said, never would have worked against more practiced terrorists such as Italy's Red Brigades.
He said that the hostages, in contrast to much of the outside world, realized after a few months that they were unlikely to be killed since Iranian leader Ayatolla Ruhollah Khomeini had forbidden executions. That sanction helped them often get the upper hand against their pliable, often hotheaded jailers.
For example, Rigamer said, if a captor insulted the family of a hostage, he would call in another militant and ask, "Does a good Moslem do that?" Often, Rigamer said he was told, the insulting captor would then disappear.
Other Americans, confronted by an angry captor, took advantage of their knowledge that formal greetings play a large part in Middle East culture. The angry militant would be given the greeting, "Salaam aleikum." When he did not reply, the hostage would repeat it. Finally, the captor was forced to return the salutation, thereby conceding to the hostage a measure of control.
Rigamer, who is stationed in New Delhi, said he was picked to go to Wiesbaden because of his experience in dealing with Foreign Service officers in stressful situations.
He was stationed in the Afghan capital of Kabul in 1979 when then-U.S. ambassador Adolph Dubs was killed and families of diplomats there had to be evacuated. He was in Islamabad, Pakistan, in November of that year when the U.S. Embassy there was burned and again families were hurriedly moved out.
Rigamer refused to discuss the hostages by name. He said they all recognized what successful prisoners of war discover: They cannot conquer the system that imprisons them, nor do they surrender to it. Instead, he said, they try to manipulate and rise above it while maintaining a sense of self.
Many of the hostages, he said, effectively asserted their rights by objecting to bad behavior by their captors in a quiet but forceful way.
Many were able to tell the militants what a good country Iran was, how the shah had led it astray and how sorry they were that the revolution was going wrong. This, Rigamer said, angered the militants, who would reply argumentatively.
The arguments demonstrated the lack of detachment among the militants that an experienced terrorist needs, Rigamer said.
The militants were upset when two hostages attempted suicide and tried to reassure the captives that they would be freed soon, Rigamer said. They feared they would be in trouble if the suicides succeeded.
Rigamer, who said he found the ex-hostages in Wiesbaden "on a high . . . quite euphoric," was impressed by the condition the Americans were in.
He said he disagrees with some of his colleagues who think the former captives will be scarred for the rest of their lives. He pointed out that some of the children evacuated from Islamabad or Kabul whose progress he has followed were devastated by that traumatic experience, but that others have grown from it. The same holds true for the hostages, he said.
All the former hostages, Rigamer said, will suffer from "repetition compulsion," the necessity to repeat their experience of captivity again and again. This, he said, is an important part of the recovery process -- talking about the experience until the recollection is devoid of feeling.