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On Hostages and Hostage Taking

Yes, let’s. Tell me: Living I am worthless, until death gives me value. Dead, that value is gone. What am I? “A hostage.” – From The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, by Michael Swanwick

Few things drive me crazier than the hostage scenario as played out in countless movies and television series. Last night, for example, I watched the second episode of Continuum, a Canadian science fiction series about a crew of desperate terrorists who flee back in time (a bit further back than they’d anticipated) to escape the death penalty for blowing up a skyscraper full of people, accidentally bringing along one exceptional policewoman and the top-of-the-line police technology she’s wearing.

Near the end of the show she faces off with the group of eight, and holds them at bay by, yes, holding her gun to the head of one of their members. They daren’t shoot her, you see, for fear of killing their compatriot.

Picture it: these ruthless killers, who last episode killed thousands of people in the year 2077 at a stroke and spent the rest of that episode and most of the second killing any 2012 people who even mildly inconvenience them, who have dedicated their lives to a desperate war against a totalitarian corporate state, on the very cusp of achieving their mission of returning to their own time with proof that the time-traveling technology works, are completely stymied by the fact that this policewoman has a gun to the head of one of their team.

Not, mind you, the leader of the mission, or the one truly indispensable guy who knows how the time-travel devide works – just one of the grunts. If you can bring yourself to believe for one moment that such fanatically dedicated people wouldn’t shoot that cop, right through the head of their compatriot if necessary, to achieve a vital strategic victory in their war, you’re exactly the kind of slack-jawed drooling moron that produces the problem – please shoot yourself in the throat, as the head is probably your least vulnerable point.

This scene wasn’t *quite* enough to make me write the series off at the second episode, though it came close. The premiere set up the series almost perfectly, with some depth and backstory quite deftly woven in… and hey, it could be that for some reason that one person who appeared to be just a grunt has some indispensable skill or knowledge or connection in her as yet unrevealed background. I’m not unreasonable, you see, and like most science fiction fans I’ve had to learn to cut some slack to the occasional idiot plot point, as long as the overall series is generally worthwhile. Producers cut the checks, and most of them seem pretty clueless about the science fiction audience.

It was essentially the same stupidity that made me give up on the last show I ditched though, the American science fiction series The Event. That one was even worse: the heroine has her gun pointed right at the villain, who is one of an alien race, mostly identical to humans but a little different (there were hints that the two races had a common stock way back when but had diverged), and said villain is carrying a vial containing a recombinant variant of the Spanish Flu which has a fatality rate for Earth humans of something like ninety percent, but affects the aliens not at all; the professed plan is to wipe out most of Earth humanity to make some lebensraum for the aliens, whose own planet is becoming uninhabitable.

Unfortunately, the baddie has a gun to the head of the heroine’s love interest (they’re not lovers, but there’s sexual tension). so the heroine naturally has no choice but to put the gun down and let the alien escape, so that sexy guy can probably die slowly later on of the flu in the company of millions of others rather than possibly now in the company of only one alien genocidal killer.  The hostage is actually begging her to take the shot!

Puh-LEASE!!!! I switched off with a few screaming obscenities and a hurled remote, and then had to explain to my 13 year old son what had pissed me off so badly. He considered that, and said “If that happens and I’m the hostage, Dad? Take the shot.” I promised I would, and told him to do the same thing if I were the hostage, to which he replied, “Duh.” That’s my boy! A choice between any single person and millions of people (quite possibly including the current hostage) is laughable.

The problem isn’t unique to science fiction of course, though that genre does allow for more extreme scenarios. There are thousands of bad cop movies and not a few war movies which play out the same stupid scenario, letting the killers escape to kill again lest they do one killing in the direct view of the so-called hero.

There are several keys, it seems to me, to successful hostage taking.

* Your threat has to be credible. You have to make your enemy believe that you will actually carry out the threat. The best way to do this, if it is possible, is to take your own volition out of the matter by making the consequences automatic and beyond your control. Just make sure your enemy knows it’s automatic and you can’t call it back; as Dr. Strangelove points out, it rather loses the point otherwise.

* Your enemies must understand the rules of the game. This, for example, is a hostage scenario that requires a very special set of conditions to work (specified by Sheriff Bart at the end of the clip):

* You have to threaten something your enemy values more than what you want in exchange. If you choose a hostage they’d rather do without than whatever it is you want. you’ve lost right out of the gate. The worst thing a hostage taker can hear is a believable “Go ahead. Why should I care?”

* Finally, you must not be vulnerable to having the enemy turn the tables on you. That was the idea behind my plan to end the recent riots in Afghanistan:

Of course, threatening to disrespect the Koran probably constitutes disrespect for the Koran in itself…

~ by BT Murtagh on June 13, 2012.

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One Response to “On Hostages and Hostage Taking”

  1. Incidentally I’m trying a new video linking technique here, so please let me know if you have problems.

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