Stockholm Syndrome – Dictionary of Terrorism

The Dictionary of Terrorism, by John Richard Thackrah, has an entry on the Stockholm Syndrome

The use of the term ‘identification’ in terrorism is generally confined to the identification with the aggressor which manifests itself in the positive attitude some hostages show to their captors (as in ‘Stockholm syndrome’).

The development of a sense of closeness and attachment between hostage and captor was first noticed during a bank robbery in Stockholm and came to be known as the Stockholm syndrome. The attempted robbery became a barricade and hostage situation. During the episode, a young woman hostage allegedly initiated sexual relations with her captor. The motivation was not a response to fear or coercion, but an intimacy that developed from sharing a common fate in a situation of mutual crisis and the protracted dependence of the woman captive on her captor. The relationship persisted after the bank robber’s incarceration.

In the United States FBI agents have noted that had observers been attuned to the problem of transference earlier, the syndrome would have been called Shade Gap syndrome rather than Stockholm syndrome. Their reference is to a kidnapping that took place in Shade Gap, Pennsylvania, in 1967, when law enforcement officials came upon the kidnapper in a wooded area, he was hurriedly walking to escape pursuit and encirclement. A considerable distance behind him was the kidnap victim straining to keep up. The victim had only to turn round and walk off to freedom.

The most publicised episode of transference by a hostage to captors was in the case of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, who not only took a lover from among her captors but also provided them with covering gunfire when they were about to be seized for shoplifting. Patricia Hearst’s behaviour was different only in degree from what is commonly observed in hostages under long-term stress. If Patricia Hearst’s responses were more extreme, it is also true that the conditions of her captivity were severe, in terms both of deprivation and duration. These factors were probably exacerbated by her age and lack of experience.

The tremendous public interest in acts of hostage taking seems to be because most members of the audience identify with the fate of the victim, sharing his suffering in an act of empathy. Not all members of an audience will automatically show compassion for the victim. Some will identify with the terrorist because he represents the awesome power of one who can destroy life at his whim. If the victim is guilty in the eyes of the spectator he may derive pleasure from humiliation and suffering. Depending on the identification, with victim or terrorist, the spectator’s attitude may be either empathy or cruelty. The direction of the identification can be determined by factors like class, race, nationality and party. The process of taking sides whenever a polarising act occurs stirs some members of the passive audience so deeply that they emerge as actors of their own, engaging in new polarising acts.

The switch from love for mankind to destruction of human beings is easier for young people, who may find it hard to identify with the older generation or with their nation. Identification, which enables one to empathise with others, is capable of leading to wide-ranging emotions – to anger and aggressiveness towards the source of the misery of the person or group for whom one has love and compassion. The strategy of terrorism of an insurgent nature is to bring about identification processes. In many cases terrorists attack the targets with which people consciously identify. The terrorist in this context uses the identification mechanism to bring home the terror to a target group by stimulating the identification between the instrumental victim and the victims’ reference group.

References

Post, J. M. (1990) ‘Terrorist Psycho-logic: Terrorist Behaviour as Product of Psychological Forces’ in Reich, W. (ed.) Origins of Terrorism Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 25-43.

Strentz, T. (1980) ‘The Stockholm Syndrome – Law Enforcement Policy and Ego Defences of the Hostage’ in Wright, F., Bahn, C. and Rieber, W. (eds) Forensic Psychology and Psychiatry, New York Academy of Sciences, pp. 137-150.

–(1982) ‘The Stockholm Syndrome: Law

Enforcement Policy and Hostage Behaviour’ in Ochberg, F. M. and Soskis, D. A. (eds) Victims of Terrorism, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 149-164.

– Source: John Richard Thackrah, Dictionary of Terrorism. Routledge, New York. 2004. Page 251.