Monday, May 07, 2007

A 1973 police photo of hostages at Kreditbanken~Stockholm, Sweden. Captor is on the right~~~.There are few things as thrilling as the story of a dramatic escape, especially one with a happy ending. It is understandable, therefore, that the public is often disappointed and critical when a kidnapping victim found alive is revealed to have had seemingly enough contact with the outside world to make such an escape. Stories of survival can feel ruined when there turns out to have been what looks like an 'easy way out'.
One well-publicized example was that of Elizabeth Smart, the Utah teenager who was abducted at knifepoint from her bedroom in 2002. Nine months later she and her captors were stopped by police not far from her home. Elizabeth was in disguise, and lied about her identity. It was not until some time after being handcuffed and separated from the abductors that she began to cooperate. More recently, Missouri teenager Shawn Hornbeck was found in early 2007 after having been kidnapped and held for more than four years outside St. Louis, only 50 miles from home. Unlike Smart, Hornbeck was able to tell police officers who he was; it was revealed, though, that Hornbeck had been allowed Internet access and a fair degree of autonomy.
In such cases, it is extremely easy to blame the victims; it seems very plausible that the kidnapped individuals were simply not clever, resourceful, or courageous enough to flee their respective abductors. However, this disturbing tendency has little to do with any supposed weakness on the part of the victim. Given the right conditions, abductors are able to exert an astonishing amount of influence over their victims - to the point at which the captive has full loyalty to his or her captor while believing that this was his or her own choice. It is a cognitive phenomenon related to brainwashing and known as Stockholm syndrome.