Ira Straus

‘Hostages First’ Means Stockholm Syndrome en Masse

We have Stockholm Syndrome today on a mass scale. It is embodied in the official policy of the U.S. and the policy demanded of Israel: to put hostage release above everything else.

It is a simple fact of logic: giving first priority to the release of hostages means giving it priority over far larger public considerations.

This makes it by definition immoral.

It is also a simple fact of psychology: it means positively embracing Stockholm Syndrome. That’s the mentality diagnosed in hostages who willy-nilly came to identify with the arguments and demands of their captors.

It is not just a disease that afflicts the hostages themselves. It is a larger public disease in contemporary Western societies. It infects governments and media, and much of the public.

By putting hostage-release first, we open ourselves up to the blackmail of the hostage takers. We put the fate of our highest priority in their hands. We in effect guarantee that they will be rewarded for their crime.

And we guarantee that more hostages will be taken in the future.

Again, this is grossly immoral.

It has been this practice on the part of our own governments that has made hostage-taking such a big business. October 7 was a consequence of it.

October 7 jolted the Israeli government out of its Stockholm Syndrome. The change was long overdue. But it may slip back into it. It is surrounded by powerful forces on all sides, including the bulk of Western media and of Western governments, that still yield to the Syndrome. Even the Biden Administration, the Western government that has given Israel the most support, has declared repeatedly a doctrine of Hostage Release First. It used this to delay the IDF’s entry into Gaza by an extra couple weeks, something that already ran out the clock on most of the initial international support for Israel before the ground action could even begin. It has continued to use the hostages to pressure Israel ever since to accept more delays. Others go further and use it to pressure Israel to end its side of the war.

Among released hostages and among families of hostages, a few have courageously stood up against the pressures and refused to fall into the Stockholm Syndrome. They have refused to put their personal interest ahead of the public interest in defeating Hamas and stopping the terrorism. But they have been given little voice by the media.

Our media consistently put their actual pressures and make their actual demands solely on the West’s side of this conflict – and, it seems, of any conflict — never on its enemy. This is the case even when they make strong pro forma statements about “unequivocally condemning” the enemy. It is a perverse behavior, the opposite of objectivity. It is not even neutral; instead, it aligns the media’s willpower with the enemy’s will. It co-aligns the media with the enemy’s pressures and demands on the West. That is the very essence of Stockholm Syndrome.

How does this happen? The media have given us a clear clue: they tell us constantly that they see their job as “holding them accountable”. And the “them” always means our own side, never the other side.

This explains the problem. It is not a mere unmotivated accident. It is a fundamental ideological and psychological orientation of our media.

That is why almost no media play is given to those hostage families who bravely call for defeating Hamas and refuse to submit to Stockholm Syndrome.

That is why all the media play is given instead to the hostages and hostage families who do yield to Stockholm Syndrome and selfishly urge us to yield to the interests of Hamas.

This media tilt serves to pressure hostage families further into Stockholm Syndrome, on top of the pressure they face from Hamas. If we abstract from the ideological sources of Stockholm Syndrome, its psychological source is the sense of helplessness before the captor. The media reinforce this helplessness.

The hostage families are held doubly-mute, doubly-helpless. The only way put in front of them for getting their word out, the only way given them to make their voice seriously heard, the only way for them to get support from the predominant media: it is by yielding to the captors.

In effect they’re being told: “Go out in the streets; protest against the government (our government), hold it accountable (to the demands of Hamas), and then we’ll give you voice. Indeed we’ll amplify it for the entire world to hear”. The hostage families get the message. It does not have to be given as an explicit command; it is powerfully communicated every day, directly to the subconscious, by the coverage the media give and the language they couch it in.

Most people naturally submit. It is the easiest thing for them to do.

Hostage families are only the tip of the iceberg of submission. The bulk of the entire society is boxed in by this situation and cowed by it. They are in effect all held hostage by the media, required to toe its line if they wish to have voice and escape a feeling of helplessness.

Public discourse is shaped around the unspoken assumptions of the media: that it is only our side that is to be “held accountable”. The other side may be accused pro forma, but it is only our side that is to be accused in a serious manner, a manner where the accusation is given punch by being accompanied by demands and continuous pressures on the “accountable” entity to comply.

The bulk of the society yields in most of the West, Israel excepted for the moment. The governments mostly yield as well.

Resistance comes mainly from those who consciously stand outside of the ideological framework that prevails in the media, and that inclines people toward Stockholm Syndrome. That is always a minority.

What is this ideological framework that we need to escape, and escape consciously? Most people have an instinctive inkling of it: it is the ideological framework that they imbibe daily from the bulk of our media, and that the youth imbibe in school. But they have never had a chance to see and understand it clearly, from outside of its own box.

It is not easy to escape this box. It is reinforced for us daily. We are put daily in it as the way reality is framed. We also get a parallel daily commandment: that we must all frame reality this way, and condemn anyone who does not. We are offered a mental block to protect ourselves from doing otherwise, in the form of condemnations made of those who think outside this box, and demands that everyone join in the condemnation. This forms an instinct for avoidance of escape.

Until we do escape, we will continue regularly to fall into Stockholm Syndrome. We will continue to pay unconscionable ransoms for hostages — and thereby encourage more hostage-taking. We will continue to lose too many of our wars against our enemies. We will continue to draw back from pressing our strategic advantages and solving the problems our enemies create.

There is one hopeful sign: Millions of people today sense that there is something terribly amiss in this. They have been shocked by mass outbreak of anti-Semitism, concentrated in the sectors of society, academia and media, most fully bred on this mentality.

Some people will need help in working their way out of this mentality. Most in fact will need it, even those who feel least in need; we are all affected when a mentality surrounds us 24-7. Serious help can be found in the works of James Burnham, Lewis Feuer, and Richard Landes. They have analyzed the problem in searching depth. Nothing less is likely to cure us of the instinct of yielding to the Stockholm-like pressures.

About the Author
Chair, Center for War/Peace Studies; Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council of the U.S.; formerly a Fulbright professor of international relations; studied at Princeton, UVA, Oxford. Institutions named above for identification purposes only; views expressed herein are solely the responsibility of the author.
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