I’m as shocked-and-appalled by hostage-takings as the next guy, but over the past few years they’ve become such a political and criminal commonplace that I’ve found myself following them with steadily increased curiosity. I’d like to understand their relationship with the media, and I’m puzzled over why the demands that get made are so crazy. It hasn’t seemed to have mattered whether it was Saddam Hussein tying Western hostages to his prized military installations and demanding that the rest of the world leave him alone so he can bomb, gas, and loot his minorities or his neighbours or if it’s a crack-deranged bank robber sticking people in a bank vault and demanding a threesome with Minnie Mouse and Christine Aguilera. The demands are always ridiculous, people get hurt, and nobody, in the end, gets what they want except the mass media. The media-delivered message hostage-takings offer, by the way, is always this: even if the system is a state of lunatic, criminal confusion, making demands of it produce even more lunatic results. Stay in front of your television sets, folks, where nothing at all happens.
A kind of Nirvana of lunacy was reached in an early 1990s hostage-taking incident in Sacramento, California. The list given to the authorities by the hostage-takers, duly reported by the Knight-Kidder news agency, ran as follows: "40 1,000-year-old ginger plants, 10 of which to be pre-boiled for tea; four RoboCop-type protective suits that would cover them from head to toe (never mind that such suits only exist on television); $4 million in cash and transportation to Thailand so they could shoot Viet Cong; and a helicopter capable of carrying 40 people."
None of these items were delivered by the authorities, and the incident ended with six people dead and quite a few more permanently traumatized. All are important statistics, but what really counted was that the hostage-takers were culturally confused about what it was they wanted. Probably they just wanted what everyone is encouraged to want these days. Money, access to high- tech equipment, exotic drugs, and the fifteen minutes of celebrity that has become the birthright of every citizen in the Global Village. What worried me was that they seemed to believe that part of their birthright was the right to take some hostages when the system wasn’t entertaining enough.
A couple of winters ago there was a hostage-taking in my home town of Prince George, B.C. that ended, if not happily, then at least without any terribly violent consequences. Three goofed-out teenagers commandeered a school bus and terrorized the media and some school kids for several hours. After the initial confusion settled, the demands the hostage-takers made were a typically Northern response to late winter in a town that is surrounded by stinking pulp mills—or to having sniffed too much airplane glue. They demanded a Camaro and safe passage to South America. When no one could find a Camaro that would start, one of the kids on the bus, who didn’t seem to have been very terrorized, helpfully suggested that the hostage-takers ask for a Subaru with 4 wheel drive. The hostage-takers took the advice, and they got a Subaru. They even managed to drive it a few kilometers south on the icy highway before it skidded into a snowbank. Lucky it did, I say. With their lousy attitudes and driving skills, they wouldn’t have gotten past Southern California’s freeways, where bazookas have become the approved method of arbitrating driver skill and etiquette.
The hostage-takers lack of perspective reminds me of the global hostage-takers who’ve invaded our collective bus, and are currently shouting their crazy demands at us. They’re everywhere, and the only difference between them and the hapless Northern B.C. goofs is that we don’t see the global goofs as hostage-takers. Certainly their demands are no less nutty: the right to guaranteed profits, the tacit request that governments withhold the necessities of life from citizens to give them what they want; banking system mergers that will enable the firing of thousands of employees, thus guaranteeing that we’ll all spend more hours standing in lineups to access our own money. The global hostage-takers freely admit that the bankers want these mergers so they’ll feel strong and manly in the international marketplace. What kind of priorities are those?
Our governments aren’t much saner. The governments of wealthier countries are cutting taxes to the rich on the theory that money and social entitlements taste better after they’ve trickled downward across the shoes of the wealthy classes. The kleptocratic governments in the poorer parts of the world hold their entire citizenry hostage, demanding foreign aid and weapons so they won’t murder their minorities or push them cross the borders into the next poor country. They all ask for the same things: Money. Power. Camaros; morning tea made from 1000 year old ginger plants. It’s almost enough to make me change my mind about Osama bin Laden. Among the few virtues he and the other radical fundamentalists have is their lack of interest in taking hostages. Their demand is to be left alone to oppress and bully people the way it was done 1400 years ago.
Too bad they have all that oil, because the right thing to do would be to stop selling them weapons to enforce their values with, pull out and leave them alone to be buried under all the good ideas we’ve seeded: social democracy, equal justice, feminism. And while we wait for that to happen, we could hunker down and deal with our own cultural confusions. Unfortunately that’s the last thing anyone in the West seems to want, least of all the corporate-directed mass media that’s causing most of our confusion. One of the things we should examine is whether the mass media’s hunger for thrilling, cautionary fictions is turning hostage-takers into the only culture heroes we have left. If you can’t stop the terror of life under media assault, creating some terror of one’s own often feels like the only thing that’ll provide relief from the Iraq War, SARS, mad cows, the threat of West Nile Virus and whatever else is next.
1066 w. May 26, 2003