Hostage Nation

In his Moscow interview, Tucker Carlson also asked the president of the Russian Federation to release a young American citizen convicted of espionage in Russia from imprisonment. Vladimir Putin replied that the man was arrested, tried and convicted by a Russian court of a crime under Russian law, espionage, by secretly receiving classified documents from someone in Russia.

Carlson’s plea was based not on respect for Russian law — or understanding of the crime of espionage — but on a widely held prejudice in the West. Namely there is a presumption that Westerners, in particular Americans, if arrested in countries listed as enemies of the West or the US, are never incarcerated for their acts but taken as hostages. Thus Carlson’s appeal was phrased in terms of a plea for mercy to an outlaw. President Putin rejected that implication and explained both the specifics of the crime committed and the customary practice for reciprocal release of agents caught by opposing special (secret) services. While not ruling a release out, the Russian president made clear that this was not a case for executive clemency.

Why, one might ask, did Carlson not grasp that fact? The obvious and superficial reason is that the request was gratuitous and theatrical. The “hostage release” mission is a typical form of quasi-diplomatic grandstanding. However there is a deeper level at which this segment can and ought to be understood. There is an ancient tradition — prior to 7 October — of states at war taking leaders of the opposing side as hostages to induce and guarantee negotiations to end hostilities or to enforce the conditions to which belligerents subsequently agreed. Medieval warfare is full of such incidents. Also other cultures have availed themselves of these in personam guarantees for treaties between warring parties. These guarantees have continued in the rituals of prisoner exchanges during truces.

The late 20th century was accompanied by proliferation in the West of a new kind of hostage taking. Whereas the ancient mode usually involved the capture or surrender of belligerents (soldiers and officers) or high officials and dignitaries, modern Western warfare focussed on holding civilians, especially non-combatants, as hostage. This became a central tactic of counter-insurgency warfare. This was condemned in the treaties after World War 2 as a form of collective punishment and prohibited under the Geneva Conventions (or protocols to the Hague Convention on the Laws of Land Warfare).

The practice of the French in Algeria was one of the most notorious post-war examples. Although almost universally condemned (at least beyond the West) it found its way into the annals of counter-insurgency doctrine through Roger Trinquier. His book Modern Warfare formed the core of CIA-US military strategy in Vietnam. The conduct of war Trinquier proposed based on his service in Indochina and Algeria was fundamentally opposed to the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. By arguing that there was no more distinction between combatants and civilians he provided the example and the theory upon which all modern wars are waged by the West. World War 2 was the first modern war in which non-combatant casualties and death exceeded those of the armed forces. That was the reason for the Geneva protocols. Triquier circumvented this essentially by claiming that the organized self-defense and armed struggle against colonial occupation was not protected by the laws of land warfare since they protected states and their regular armed forces, while colonies were not states and could therefore not field armies in terms of international law.

While it is true that Trinquier insisted that treatment of civilians should distinguish between criminals to be tried and sentenced by the regular courts and “terrorists”, this distinction was no more than academic in the CI context. The CIA’s Phoenix Program extended to forcing the RVN legislature to criminalize political opinions and activities so that they could be punished as “civilian” crimes. As then CIA station chief William Colby explained, the Phoenix directorate in Saigon also insisted that political crimes be handled by the special branch of the national police so as to keep the military “clean” for regular warfare. However in Algeria, as in Vietnam, there was almost no contact between the regular forces of the two sides until the CI was virtually at an end. Moreover the personnel overlap between military and police in the colonies made the distinction more a question of clothes than substance.

The use of hostages in counter-insurgency expanded throughout the era of wars against national independence movements regardless of the prohibitions under international law. There was also a major innovation in 1972.

The conventional story is that a group of activists desiring to call attention to the ongoing occupation of Palestine by European settler-colonialists plotted to take the Olympic competition squad sent by the State of Israel to Munich hostage. Presumably this surprising move would compel the international community (as the US calls itself) to listen to the pleas of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, pleas for just treatment to resolve the conflict in compliance with international law.

The immediate result was dramatic and has been repeatedly dramatized. A special paramilitary squad from the German national police, GSG 9, stormed the rooms where the hostages were held and killed everyone, hostages and alleged hostage-takers. After that international air travel to and from Palestine was subjected to security measures that would then be standardized for all air travel in 2001. The immediate result was not the opening of international venues to the Palestinian cause but the opposite. The PLO became a certified “terrorist organization” and its members were declared outlaws. One should recall here what the term “outlaw” actually means. The naive understanding is misleading. Since the days of the Medieval Inquisition there has been a clear legal distinction between criminal and outlaw. A criminal is someone accused and convicted of violating the law. Nonetheless he is also governed by the law and enjoys its protection. Only the authorities have the right to seize and punish a criminal. An outlaw however is deemed literally beyond the law, enjoying neither rights nor protection. Hence an act of violence, even killing, against an outlaw is no offense. Anyone is free to treat an outlaw as he likes. An outlaw has no claims whatsoever.

One of the principles by which counter-insurgency is waged is by creating outlaws and removing them from the sight or oversight of the regular government and social infrastructure. This has also been done through what is now called “disappearing”. However hostage taking by the counter-insurgency agencies and their operatives has the perfidious effect of creating outlaws in the public perception by staging hostage incidents that appear to be perpetrated by the so-called “terrorists”. Thus the mythic propaganda of the deed is turned against those engaged in struggle — whether or not armed — to elicit the revulsion among the target population commensurate with this violation of the Geneva protocols.

Leaving aside the plethora of staged hijackings in the 1970s, there are two high jacking-hostage incidents that bear consideration. Indeed they too relate to Palestine. The first is the Entebbe incident in which Israeli military force was applied to near universal acclaim to the recovery of a passenger liner taken there by “terrorists”.

In June 1976, an Air France flight to Tel Aviv carrying some 248 passengers was diverted to Uganda’s capital. (Ironically Uganda had been one of Britain’s proposed sites for a future Zionist state.) Israel special forces attacked the airport and liberated the aircraft, killing some Ugandan soldiers and apparently violating Ugandan sovereignty to perform the raid. The ruler of Uganda, Idi Amin, apparently supported seizure of the airliner. In the course of the action practically all non-Israelis were released. The Israeli forces shot their way in and recovered all those passengers except for some collateral damage. Amin had been receiving and continued to receive exceptionally bad press. The review of his years in Uganda is only relevant to show that whatever domestic political struggles were underway in Britain’s former colony, Amin was one of several African leaders punished for supporting the citizens of Palestine in their armed struggle.

The second incident involved a TWA flight from Athens to San Diego that was diverted to Beirut in June 1986. In the course of this action a US Navy diver was killed. While this death is treated as a civilian casualty, since it was not a military flight, the reported actions of a man trained in what is essentially a special forces MOS may have led to his death as combat-induced. Nonetheless the remarkable aspect of this hostage incident was not only the negotiated exchange of 19 hostages unharmed in return for fuel. Eventually all the hostages were released. In this case the Israeli government released prisoners it held while denying that the incident had forced them to do so.

One of the hostages released was a Texas original, a businessman from that archconservative oil and ranching state. He was actually interviewed on network television just after he reached the tarmac. (The man disappeared from public view shortly thereafter.) He told assembled reporters that he was not only treated well but that they had made a case for their political objectives that he found very reasonable. He practically asked the governments concerned to listen and take his captors seriously. That was the last time he spoke in public- at least where cameras could record it.

The case of TWA flight 847 ended with the released passengers being flown by USAF transporter to Frankfurt am Main, the center of US intelligence services in Germany, for “debriefing” before a quasi-heroic reception in the US. That Texas businessman who had spoken soberly to journalists asking why no one was listening to the people in Palestine, was declared to have incurred “Stockholm syndrome”.

Stockholm syndrome is a pseudo-medical term invented in the early 1970s as a faux psychiatric disorder whereby captives allegedly become bonded with their captors and sympathetic to them. It has become a term of trade for discrediting anyone who by virtue of a politically motivated hostage-taking exhibits a sympathetic response to the political issue at hand, no matter how rational that sympathy may be articulated. To confuse matters the “syndrome” is sometimes compared with the established “attractions” in abusive relationships, e.g. wife-beating, child-beating, rape, etc. While there are plausible explanations for the persistence of abusive relationships the elements of time and social/ familial status are very different from those of temporary hostage situations.

The purpose of Stockholm syndrome is to pathologize the responses of people caught in political conflict who begin to consider rationally or even humanely the terms of those conflicts in officially prohibited ways. The origin of the term “brainwashing” was similar. When US POWs were released after the Armistice in Korea, many were forced to retract statements made in captivity about war crimes they had been ordered to commit. To explain these retractions and conceal the threats made to extract them, the returning prisoners were alleged to have been victims of Korean brainwashing. This also served as convenient cover for what is now known as MKUltra, the CIA psychological warfare program which included the mass marketing of LSD.

Throughout the so-called Cold War the Soviet Union was accused of conducting all the psychological and pharmament operations against its dissidents that the CIA was performing in the US, Canada and other countries under its control. The battlefield “mind” predates the Internet- in fact it has been the main battlespace since 1913.

The history of modern hostage taking for political purposes could bear far more examination than this space permits. However to return to the Carlson-Putin interview and Carlson’s plea for a “hostage release” we should ask from what position Carlson’s request is actually addressed?

That is most simply revealed in his opening questions.

On February 22, 2022, you addressed your country in your nationwide address when the conflict in Ukraine started and you said that you were acting because you had come to the conclusion that the United States through NATO might initiate a quote, “surprise attack on our country”. And to American ears that sounds paranoid. Tell us why you believe the United States might strike Russia out of the blue. How did you conclude that?

Tucker Carlson, consciously or not, was speaking with the voice of the real “hostage-taker”. The US, in NATO extended, began to take the world hostage no later than August 1945. It held for a brief period the absolute atomic monopoly, until the Soviet Union followed by China acquired a deterrent. Then until 1990 the US claimed to be the hostage of a country half its population and subjected to more than twenty years of US-supported war mainly against its civilian population. In addition it held the world hostage while it carpet-bombed Korea and Vietnam (plus Laos and Cambodia), murdering over six million people from the air. At the same time it held as much of Africa, Latin America and the Pacific archipelagos hostage through military dictatorships, with or without civilian faces. Then through brain drain and strategic immigration policy it created an international hostage pool paying ransom in return for a chance to send money to impoverished families at home. Ultimately the psychological and economic warfare to which all inhabitants of the US are subjected is calculated to create a strong emotional bond with their captors, the real but unnamed hostage-takers who rule the Anglo-American Empire.

Vladimir Putin responded to Tucker Carlson’s plea in the manner appropriate to a traditional statesman, schooled in statecraft from an age before the US was even conceived as a place, let alone as a nation. Also that point eluded the American journalist. President Putin’s repeated injunction that Tucker Carlson should ask the actors themselves (in the US) why they act as they do? was also a polite indication that for all his curiosity, sincerity and goodwill, Carlson was himself a captive, a hostage. He remains a captive of a hostage nation.

Dr T.P. Wilkinson writes, teaches History and English, directs theatre and coaches cricket between the cradles of Heine and Saramago. He is also the author of Church Clothes, Land, Mission and the End of Apartheid in South Africa. Read other articles by T.P..