In our modern era, we find ourselves living amidst a persistent and escalating wave of criminal activity. While instances of hostage-taking and kidnapping haven’t seen a dramatic upsurge as other crimes in our country, such situations do occur, and unfortunately, the general public has no idea how to act or respond when faced with such scenarios.
Though the probability of falling victim to abduction or being held hostage remains relatively small, it is of utmost importance to be equipped with the knowledge of what to do if such a harrowing event were to occur.
Thankfully, there are a number of proven strategies that you can readily adopt to significantly enhance your chances of survival in such distressing circumstances. By familiarizing yourself with these strategies, you can improve your chances of emerging alive and unharmed.
Hostage situation scenarios
There exists a range of diverse hostage-takers, each with their own distinct motivations. These captors can be categorized into several primary types: terrorists (domestic or foreign), military and paramilitary personnel, opportunistic criminals, and individuals suffering from mental illness.
Now, when it comes to hostage situations, four primary types can be identified, each with its own defining features:
This form involves the hostage takers firmly holding their captives at a clearly discernible location, utilizing their lives as a bargaining chip to achieve their goals. This particular method is often favored by terrorists seeking widespread attention. Such scenarios are highly charged, as the hostage takers themselves become, in a sense, captives to the responding authorities. In the 70s and 80s, the most common scenario of barricades was a plane hijacking.
In recent years, in July 2016, a sniper barricaded himself inside a building in downtown Dallas, Texas, during a protest rally. He opened fire on police officers, resulting in multiple casualties. Negotiations with the hostage taker continued for several hours before the authorities deployed a robot with an explosive device, resulting in the death of the suspect.
This type of hostage situation arises when a group finds itself surrounded and confined by a larger force that maintains control over the area. As long as those being contained remain stationary, violence can be averted. In such cases, the hostages are not directly controlled except within the confines of the containment zone. Probably the most common scenario of containment that people are familiar with is a bank heist gone wrong. However, there are other types of containment scenarios that make the news as well.
In April 2013, two individuals carried out a bombing at the Boston Marathon, which resulted in a chaotic situation with multiple casualties. During the subsequent manhunt, one of the perpetrators, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was found hiding in a boat in Watertown, Massachusetts. A containment zone was established, and after a standoff, Tsarnaev was apprehended by law enforcement.
Kidnapping encompasses the illegal act of forcibly removing or transporting an individual against their will. Motives behind such acts can range from financial ransom, political leverage, furtherance of other criminal activities, or even as part of a dispute regarding child custody. Terrorists, in particular, may resort to kidnapping with the objective of securing the release of political prisoners or incarcerated terrorists. While, for example, kidnapping is a common occurrence in Latin America, there are also domestic cases that gain the media’s attention.
In January 2019, Jayme Closs, a 13-year-old girl from Barron, Wisconsin, was kidnapped from her home after her parents were murdered. She was held captive by the perpetrator for 88 days before managing to escape. The case received widespread attention, and Jayme’s safe return was celebrated as a successful recovery.
Within military and political contexts, the concept of human shields involves intentionally placing non-combatants in or around targets of combat in order to dissuade the enemy from attacking those targets. This tactic may also involve using non-combatants as shields for combatants during assaults, compelling them to march ahead. Criminals may also resort to taking hostages as human shields.
In August 2020, a hostage situation unfolded at a bank in St. Cloud, Minnesota. A suspect held five bank employees hostage, using them as human shields to prevent law enforcement intervention. After an hours-long standoff, a SWAT team successfully resolved the situation, rescuing the hostages and apprehending the perpetrator.
The above examples demonstrate that hostage situations can occur in different contexts within the United States, ranging from acts of terrorism to domestic incidents. Each situation poses unique challenges for law enforcement, requiring strategic negotiation, containment, and, when necessary, tactical operations to ensure the safety of the hostages and bring the crisis to a peaceful resolution.
Typically, a hostage situation unfolds in distinct stages, which include planning and surveillance, the actual attack leading to the capture and restraint of hostages, movement (typically observed in kidnapping cases), the period of captivity, and, ultimately, the release of the hostages.
While captors exhibit considerable variability in their behavior, it is crucial to anticipate the possibility of physical restraints and sensory deprivation, verbal mistreatment, threats of harm and death, interrogation, indoctrination or brainwashing attempts, sleep deprivation, and at times, physical and sexual abuse. The response and adaptation to captivity vary significantly among individuals.
Six main stages, each characterized by their own approximate durations, have been identified by experts as follows:
Startle and/or panic – which is the initial stage that can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. In this stage, the victim doesn’t fully grasp the gravity of the situation, and panic replaces reasoning and logic.
Disbelief – This is the following stage which can last minutes to hours, and during this stage, while the victims begin to comprehend what is going on, there is still a general disbelief feeling. The “is this really happening to me” type of feeling and questioning.
Hyper-vigilance and anxiety – This stage can last hours to days, depending on the hostage situation, and during this stage, the victims have a hard time finding their rhythm. During this stage, anxiety can become such a big burden that it prevents the victim from figuring out a way out or planning an escape plan.
Resistance and/or compliance – This stage can stretch from a few days to a few weeks, and the victims will either do as they are told without putting too much of a fight or protest, and they try to make things harder for the hostage-takers (at least that’s what they believe). During this stage, compliance usually follows, even if it’s often enforced by the captors.
Depression and despair – This is perhaps one of the most difficult periods as it sets the stage for the next phase, and it can take weeks to months. During this stage, people’s mind and spirit often breaks as a mix of depression and despair gradually takes hold of them. Some experts believe that during this stage, the basis for Stockholm syndrome is formed.
Gradual acceptance – This stage can take months to years to set in, and during it, some sort of relationship is built between the hostages and the captors. This is the stage when the Stockholm syndrome grows, and it creates an unhealthy relationship between the two parties involved.
Surviving the ordeal
Surviving a hostage situation is, to a large extent, a matter of chance and varies depending on the type of hostage taker and the specific circumstances involved. The initial 45 minutes of a hostage situation are considered the most perilous, as both captors and hostages are highly stressed and prone to impulsive actions.
However, as time passes, the chances of being released alive generally increase, especially if you are being held for bargaining or ransom purposes. The following guidelines are based on the experiences of previous hostages and field experts following my research on this topic. It is important to note that every situation is different, and they should be seen as general principles rather than rigid rules.
Seize escape opportunities: Your best chance for escape may occur during the initial capture while you are still in a public space. The situation is likely to worsen once you are in private with your abductor(s). If escaping is impossible or too risky, attempt to attract attention and alert authorities discreetly by making as much noise as safely possible.
Maintain situational awareness: Always be aware of your surroundings and potential escape opportunities, especially during transit. Develop an escape plan in advance and consider possible evasion routes before attempting to escape. The goal is to get outside the perimeter controlled by hostile forces. Oftentimes, it is impossible to develop an escape plan if you don’t know the area and if you are not familiar with the surrounding architecture.
Regain composure and stay focused: If you are taken hostage, try to regain your composure as soon as possible. Maintain a clear mind and concentrate on survival. Explicit resistance is generally counterproductive in a hostage situation and can make you a target. Stay calm, control impulsive behavior, and follow instructions. Research shows that individuals who appear threatening to captors are more likely to be harmed or neutralized.
Pay attention to everything: Pay attention to your surroundings, the route taken while being transported (if applicable), the layout of the building where you are held, and details about your captors. Memorize relevant information such as routines, physical descriptions, accents, names, and any identifying factors. This information can be valuable for authorities and aid in assessing and planning any escape attempts.
Form a connection: Try to establish a positive connection with your captors. Hostage takers often view hostages as expendable objects, so it is important to gain their respect and humanize yourself. Maintain your dignity and engage in non-threatening communication. Oftentimes, you will be allowed to discuss topics such as family and common interests. However, you should avoid sensitive or political issues. Once a connection is established, you can cautiously make reasonable and low-key requests for items of convenience.
Maintain hope: Be prepared for an extended period of captivity. Set goals and strive to maintain some control over your environment to alleviate feelings of hopelessness. Keep your mind active and engaged. You will need to maintain physical well-being, so you need to eat and exercise as much as possible. Eating and exercising not only helps you keep your strength, but it also helps counteract the effects of stress. Never lose hope since that’s a dead end.
Communicate with fellow hostages: If you become aware of other hostages in the same building, find ways to communicate with them. Be tolerant and supportive of one another, refraining from venting frustrations on fellow captives. If you are in the same room/building, try to keep everyone’s spirit up because desperate people will make mistakes. Also, do not perceive emotional breakdowns in others as a weakness.
If you are interrogated, the best thing to do is cooperate and avoid being antagonistic or hostile toward your captors. Remain polite and control your temper. Provide concise answers and discuss non-essential matters, being cautious about divulging substantive information. Beware of the “good cop/bad cop” routine, a common interrogation technique. If forced to present terrorist demands in writing or on tape, clearly state that those demands are coming from the captors.
Remember, surviving a hostage situation is an intricate and unpredictable challenge. These guidelines aim to enhance your chances of survival, but each situation requires careful assessment and adaptation to the specific circumstances at hand.
A few notes about the Stockholm Syndrome
Pay attention to signs of Stockholm Syndrome, also known as capture bonding, which is a psychological phenomenon where hostages develop empathy and sympathy towards their captors or their captors’ cause.
The term “Stockholm Syndrome” originated from an incident in Stockholm, Sweden, where bank robbery victims defended their captors and refused to testify against them in court after being released. However, it’s important to note that the majority of hostages do not develop Stockholm Syndrome.
There are various studies concluding that hostage-taking incidents identified three necessary factors for the syndrome to develop:
The crisis situation must last for several days or longer.
The hostages are not isolated. They are not confined to a separate room by the captors. The constant interaction with the captors is a critical factor that leads to the syndrome.
The captors demonstrate some kindness and/or refrain from harming the hostages.
Furthermore, these studies revealed that individuals who often feel helpless in other stressful situations or are willing to do anything to survive are more susceptible to developing Stockholm Syndrome if they become hostages. On the other hand, hostages who experience abuse from their captors typically feel anger towards them and are less likely to develop the syndrome.
It’s worth noting that Stockholm Syndrome can manifest as a two-way phenomenon, with captors developing empathy towards their hostages. In some cases, hostages have been able to utilize this dynamic to their advantage, negotiating concessions and even securing their release from their captors.
It’s essential to be aware of the existence of Stockholm Syndrome and its potential influence on hostage situations, but it’s important to approach each situation with caution and consider the individual dynamics and variables involved.
The rescue and release stage
During hostage situations, the process of rescue and release requires patience. It’s important to note that most hostage-taking scenarios conclude without loss of life or physical harm to the captive.
Attempting to escape should only be considered if success is certain. If you manage to escape and find yourself outside of the United States, seek protection at an American Embassy or Consulate. If that is not feasible, approach a host government or a friendly government office for assistance. This, of course, requires a little bit of research on your side, and you should be aware of the things mentioned before you step foot on foreign soil.
Rescue operations follow when negotiations have failed, and this phase is known to be the most perilous. It is often observed that more hostages are harmed during rescue attempts than are executed by the hostage takers.
Rescues are executed with the principles of close-quarters battle (CQB): speed, surprise, and violence of action. There will be no prior warning given. During a rescue attempt, the lives of hostage takers, hostages, and rescue forces are all at risk, and the rescuers will be under immense stress.
In such a situation, it is crucial to avoid being caught in the crossfire. Refrain from running and instead drop to the floor and remain still. Make no sudden movements that might be perceived as hostile by the rescuers. Keep your hands clearly visible and empty. Comply with all instructions given to you.
Expect to be treated as a hostage taker initially until the rescuers can confirm your status, as it is not uncommon for hostage takers to disguise themselves as hostages. Cooperate when being handcuffed and searched.
After your release, it is advisable to avoid media exposure until you have been properly debriefed. Unintentionally sharing details could create difficulties for any remaining hostages. Additionally, be aware of the possibility of Stockholm Syndrome influencing your thoughts and emotions.
If approached by the press, focus your comments on expressing your happiness about being free and your anticipation of reuniting with your family and friends.
In summary, during the phase of rescue and release, it is crucial to prioritize safety, follow instructions from rescue forces, and be mindful of the potential psychological effects of the situation.
The journey from being a hostage to reclaiming freedom is not always a smooth transition. Each individual’s experience may vary, but the ability to cope with recovery is generally influenced by the duration and severity of the captivity.
It’s important to recognize that the pressure to appear resilient can sometimes conceal underlying difficulties in readjustment. Stress reactions stemming from the captivity can manifest long after the release, and it’s common for former hostages to be unaware that these reactions are a result of their ordeal.
Reintegration problems can have a profound impact on one’s life as well as the lives of their loved ones. Fortunately, seeking assistance from professionals experienced in post-traumatic stress can often provide relief and support in overcoming these challenges.
Useful resources to check out: