Two who triumphed over terror. Books by former hostages in Lebanon are spiritual odysseys of trial, suffering, forgiveness, and eventual freedom
Hostage Bound, Hostage Free, by Ben and Carol Weir, with Dennis Benson. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. 180 pp. $12.95. Triumph over Terror on Flight 847, by Capt. John Testrake with David J. Wimbish. Old Tappin, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Company. 256 pp. $14.95.
ON May 8, 1984, Ben and Carol Weir were strolling to a meeting at an ecumenical Christian seminary in west Beirut when a car pulled up behind them. In what is now a familiar scenario, two gunmen forced the Presbyterian minister into the back of their car and sped away. For the next 495 days, the Rev. Mr. Weir was held hostage by the Islamic Jihad (``Islamic holy war'') organization.
On June 14, 1985, Capt. John Testrake was piloting TWA Flight 847 between Athens and Rome when two gunmen burst into the cockpit and ordered the plane flown to Algeria. It was the beginning of one of the most bizarre hijackings in history, an ordeal that would soon break down into the second mass hostage trauma for the United States.
The subsequent plight of both men marks the emergence of the foreign hostage phenomenon as the most effective tactic of Middle East terrorists in the 1980s. Since 1982, 131 foreigners from 18 nations have been abducted in Lebanon; 55 have been Americans. Eight Americans are still in captivity in Lebanon.
Their ordeals have gripped the US and made the yellow ribbon into a national symbol. Yet, while hostages command world headlines during captivity, too little attention is paid to their subsequent, often politically discomforting comments.
Two books, which reflect a special genre within the burgeoning literature on terrorism, offer insights into the ominous new hostage trend as well as interesting commentary on US policy response. ``Hostage Bound, Hostage Free'' by Ben and Carol Weir and ``Triumph over Terror'' by John Testrake are moving accounts of their similar but separate captivities. They are also narratives about politics, religion, and human suffering - of all involved.
The strength of both books is the straightforward, almost understated style. Despite initial anger and anxiety, Weir and Testrake are coolheaded, honestly disclosing moments of humor and humanity as well as occasions of cruelty by Islamic extremists.
Weir, whose abduction was linked to demands to free 17 convicted and imprisoned Lebanese and other Shiite extremists in Kuwait, spent more than a year in primitive solitary confinement. He was perpetually chained to a radiator and blindfolded whenever his captors were nearby. He was interrogated once and threatened often. His wedding ring was stolen; two of several buildings in which he was held were wired with explosives to prevent rescue attempts.
Yet Weir usually received the basics he requested - a Bible, vitamins, eye ointment, and warmer clothing during winter - plus infrequent surprises. A yule log cake and cologne were given on Christmas, a jigsaw puzzle at New Year's, and hamburgers to mark evening feasts during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. As time passed, more books - from George Orwell and Albert Camus to poetry and trashy mysteries - were provided. During intense fighting, he was given a flak jacket, which his captors noted they could not afford for themselves.
His exchanges with the rotating young guards are the most revealing passages. One had studied physics at Lebanese University and had hoped for a graduate scholarship to the US, but the Beirut government ran out of money; instead he joined a militia that paid less than $35 a month. Another struggled briefly to learn English. Several queried Weir about Christianity.
During his final 10 weeks, five of the six American hostages were brought, one by one, together. With Weir, the Rev. Lawrence Martin Jenco, David Jacobsen (also now free), and Terry Anderson and Tom Sutherland (both still in captivity) lived, learned, and prayed together.
Sutherland, dean of agriculture at American University of Beirut, taught them about animal husbandry and genetics. Weir helped Anderson learn Arabic, fashioning flashcards from milk containers; they were often corrected by guards, who also conducted seminars on Shiism. The one hostage none of them saw was William Buckley, former CIA station chief in Lebanon, who died in captivity.
Weir did not know at the time that the end of his 14-month isolation was due to the TWA hijacking and a change in the political atmosphere that was eventually to lead to his own freedom - and the Reagan administration's worst policy disaster.
IT took only two hijackers to commandeer TWA 847 and the 153 people on board. For three days, the plane shuttled between Lebanon and Algeria until the weary TWA crew faked an engine failure. The unsophisticated Shiites apparently had no game plan beyond a dramatic move to draw attention to the 766 Lebanese imprisoned in Israel - a violation of the Geneva Accords on treatment of prisoners of war, which the US had earlier condemned.
The murder of US Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem is a telling episode. The hijackers, one of whom often ran up and down the aisle yelling ``New Jersey, New Jersey,'' had singled out US military personnel for repeated beatings. Testrake recalls asking, ``What has he got against New Jersey? It's not my favorite place either, but why is this guy so violent about it?''
The USS New Jersey had fired at Muslim areas during the deployment of the US Marines in Beirut between 1982 and 1984. Testrake later learned that the hijackers and several subsequent captors had lost friends or relatives in the bombardments. ``I tried to talk to guards about Stethem's death and what a senseless tragedy it was. And every time they would bring up the New Jersey.''
Although the crew remained on the plane while 36 American men were held in small groups in Beirut, Testrake's experience was typical. Threats were mixed with small treats. A gun was held to his head as he was allowed to talk to American reporters. His wedding ring and other personal goods were taken, but food was so abundant he gained weight. With guns often left lying around, the crew could have escaped; they did not know where to go in the middle of a war zone. But encounters and discussions with their captors are also this book's highlights.
After 17 days, the 39 TWA hostages were finally freed on July 1 in a ``no-deal deal'' brokered between the US, Israel, Syria, and Iran. Tehran officials pressured the Shiite extremists to release the Americans on the understanding that the 766 in Israel would later be freed as Israel had said before the hijacking that it was eventually planning to do.
AT this critical juncture, Washington recognized that Tehran, not Damascus, was the more viable channel through which to negotiate on hostages. That developed a new framework contributing to the subsequent ``arms for hostage'' swap. Weir was the first to be released in September 1985.
Together, the two books make powerful reading, particularly the striking conclusions of two very different hostages. One had lived in Lebanon for 31 years; the other candidly admits his earlier ignorance of the region's history. Each vehemently denies being a victim of the so-called Stockholm syndrome, when hostages become sympathetic to their captors due to dependence and trauma.
Both men, whose strong religious beliefs also make their ordeals spiritual odysseys, demonstrate tolerance and forgiveness. One captor asks Weir whether he would try to capture the Shiites after his release. ``No,'' the missionary replied. ``I want you to know that I forgive you.''
Long after his release, he advises policymakers, ``Life is divinely given. Each person is to be respected and deserves to be heard. The captors themselves need to be set free. We are all recipients of God's mercy and forgiveness. On that basis we can begin to trust each other and find the constructive things we can do together as Christians and Muslims.... We must learn to live together.''
After his ``education'' about Shiite political grievances and Lebanon's recent history, Testrake said, ``Nothing we had done could justify the killing of Robbie Stethem. But I was beginning to understand some of their anger and see that they, too, had suffered for things they had not done.''
He says that shortly before his release, ``I realized that we were all victims. They were being held hostage every bit as much as we were. But whereas the ordeal was about to end, theirs seems likely to go on and on and on.''
And in an epilogue, he writes, ``There are two sides to the story. When we focus only on our own grievances it ensures that the violence and the terrorism will continue indefinitely.''
Robin Wright, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a former Middle East correspondent for the Monitor.
Did John Testrake become sympathetic to his captors?
Many critics of hostage commentaries charge that the hostages, after release, are victims of the Stockholm syndrome, an automatic, often unconscious emotional response by hostages that results in a feeling of indebtedness to their captors.
In a recent interview with Robin Wright, airline Capt. John Testrake tells why he disagrees with those who portray him as having succumbed to the Stockholm syndrome:
The Stockholm syndrome ... would tend to signify the warping of a person's opinions by events in which he is involved. I've sometimes been accused of suffering from the Stockholm syndrome since I seem to exhibit some degree of understanding of the Arab militants' positions. I'd make two points.
First, the captors who were holding me were all young men, aged 19-20 years old and had come out of primitive surroundings, mostly refugee camps, I would presume, and had had no opportunity for education. They weren't brilliant minds. They really weren't capable of instilling any so-called Stockholm syndrome in their listeners. So I prefer to think what I actually did was just to use my native intelligence, my common sense to look at the situation in which I found myself and to draw judgment based on the facts.
Second, a person who has supposedly suffered this impairment should correct his thinking once he returns to his former environment. But in my case, once I returned my curiosity had been so aroused at the events in which I had been involved that I picked up every piece of information I could to enlarge my understanding of the issues.
And I've discovered that in all the reading and listening that I have done in the almost two years since the event that not one single source which has been familiar with events in the Middle East has contradicted or changed my thinking in the slightest regarding any impressions which I reached on the scene.
I think that [former hostages have a different opinion than most Americans] because the majority of Americans, and that includes myself until I was involved in this [hijacking], are largely oblivious to the truth of what's going on, especially in such a remote, alien, hard-to-understand area as the Middle East. So it almost requires us to be involved in those situations to draw our attention to them and get our interest. That's why my interest was aroused.