The Hamas Hostage with “Stockholm Syndrome”

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If you’re watching this video in November of 2023 you already know the context, but I’ll provide it anyway for the people who may watch this years in the future, possibly from an underground bunker due to one of our many possible dystopian future potentials: last month on October 7, the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas committed a massive atrocity against Israeli civilians, slaughtering around 1,400 people and taking another 240 or so hostage.

Israel countered with a response that many experts are calling a genocide of Palestinians, slaughtering nearly 10,000 civilians as of this recording, most of whom are women and children. Palestinians were already living in Israel’s open-air prison, devoid of rights, so this is an unsurprising but obviously extremely depressing result.

By the way, I talk a bit more about Israel’s apartheid state and why American evangelical Christians support it in this video from 2021, which is apparently going to stay evergreen.

Throughout Israel’s month-long bombing campaign, most of the hostages are still in Hamas’s hands, to the understandable despair of their friends and family, who have varied opinions on whether Israel should do a hostage exchange or agree to a ceasefire.

Recently, Egypt and Qatar stepped in and brokered a deal with Hamas that led to the release of two of the hostages: 79-year old Nurit Cooper and 85-year old Yocheved Lifshitz, the latter of whom immediately made worldwide headlines not just for her rescue but for the fact that when she was turned over, she shook one of her captors’ hands and said “Shalom.” She then gave a press conference, in which she emphasized that while the kidnapping was brutal, the group that actually spent two weeks taking care of her showed “care” and “gentleness,” and she pointed out that she and the other captives received immediate medical care and saw a doctor frequently. She said that the man whose hand she shook was a paramedic who had discussed the prospect of peace with her.

This display of humanity has led many pro-war Israelis struggling to figure out what the fuck is wrong with her, and one easy explanation is, of course, “Stockholm Syndrome,” as a former mental health officer in the Israel Defense Forces told the Jewish News Syndicate: this is when captives “start to understand and sympathize with problems, issues and the human part of their kidnappers,” she said.

“There is a limit to how much you can be afraid. So you start off by saying, ‘He didn’t kill me yesterday and he’s not killing me today, so I can trust him. I can talk to him. I can try to convince him to give me this, or to help me do that, and I’ll give him some smiles,’” said Segall.

“You put on the kidnapper all of your human abilities, and you make him human when you start to treat him like a human, like yourself. You start to sympathize with him. You forget that this man is abusing you and he might kill you and your friends and your family. You start giving reasons for his evil,” she added.

“Segall insists that no hostage should be judged or blamed for the syndrome.”

With that in mind, let’s talk about Stockholm Syndrome: what it is, what it isn’t, and why we should probably all stop using it.

To start with, “Stockholm Syndrome” is not an accepted mainstream psychological diagnosis. If it exists, it’s extremely rare, and when you look at the actual supposed cases, you find that there doesn’t tend to be one unifying characteristic among them all. In fact, in every case there seems to be better terms to describe what happened, meaning that the term “Stockholm Syndrome” actually becomes a broad brush that paints over a situation and obscures what really is going on.

A good example is the situation for which Stockholm Syndrome is named. In 1973, an escaped convict named Jan-Erik Olsson robbed a bank in Stockholm and then took four people hostage: three women, plus one man who had been hiding when the rest of the bank was evacuated. In the popular retelling that describes the supposed syndrome, over the next several days while trapped in the bank, the hostages began to sympathize with their captor and then refused to cooperate with police. That is in no way what happened.

Olsson first asked police to release his friend from prison and bring him to the bank, which they did, which is weird but okay. The police then thought they had figured out who the captor was and got his little brother to enter the bank with a negotiator, psychiatrist Nils Bejerot. Unfortunately, the police had actually misidentified the convict, meaning they just sent some random teenager into a situation with an armed and quite agitated man, who shot at them.

That was the first thing the hostages saw the police do: send in a second convict to join their captor and then send in a random teenager to get shot at. Meanwhile, the hostages described how that second convict was holding their hands and reassuring them that he would make sure they all got out okay. So, they pretty much immediately suspected that if they were going to get out alive, they’d need to be smart, and thus they started befriending their captors.

One of the hostages, 23-year old Kristin Enmark, asked authorities if she could speak to the psychiatrist, Bejerot, who refused to talk to her. She then called a radio station and live on the air complained that the incompetent police were playing with their lives.

Olsson got in touch with the Prime Minister on the phone, but the conversation went nowhere. In the book “See What You Made Me Do: The Dangers of Domestic Abuse That We Ignore,” Jess Hill reports that then Enmark called the Prime Minister and begged him to do something to help them, saying that she was NOT afraid of Olsson but she WAS afraid that the police will “attack and cause us to die.” The PM replied, “Well, Kristin, you can’t get out of the bank. You will have to content yourself that you will have died at your post.” Her post, as a reminder, was “bank teller.”

The police did eventually manage to teargas the bank and capture Olsson and his friend, but Enmark was left furious. She publicly criticized their handling of the situation, including the incompetence of Bejerot. Hill writes, “In response, and without once speaking to her, Bejerot dismissed her comments as the product of a syndrome he made up: “Norrmalmstorg syndrome,” later renamed Stockholm syndrome.” The fear Enmark felt toward the police was irrational, Bejerot explained, caused by the emotional or sexual attachment she had with her captors. Bejerot’s snap diagnosis suited the Swedish media; they were suspicious of Enmark, who “did not appear as traumatized as she ought to be.”

Enmark’s actions in the bank, in which she and the other hostages “bonded” with Olsson, were successful, considering what Ollson later said about how easily he could have killed the hostages early on:

“’It was the hostages’ fault,’ he said. ‘They did everything I told them to do. If they hadn’t, I might not be here now. Why didn’t any of them attack me? They made it hard to kill. They made us go on living together day after day, like goats, in that filth. There was nothing to do but get to know each other.'”

Now, just because the initial case of “Stockholm syndrome” wasn’t an actual example of it and the guy who identified it didn’t even talk to the person experiencing it, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other situations where it applies. Unfortunately, systematic reviews of the literature have failed to come up with more than a handful of cases that bear passing similarity to one another. Instead of it being an actual psychological phenomenon, it’s just a story the media likes to tell when explaining victim behavior that people might not immediately understand.

Or, to summarize many researchers over the years who have studied this, like Dr. Allan Wade, it’s a way to infantilize victims, removing their agency and explaining their actions with pseudoscientific hand-wavery. Wade has said that Stockholm syndrome is “an abuse of male-state power and still works as one of many closely related concepts that blame victims, mostly women, while denying the reality of their resistance and ignoring the central role of social responses.”

Some researchers have proposed adopting a new viewpoint that acknowledges the active participation of the victim: “Faced with a situation where no escape is immediately possible, some survivors may have the resource to express a type of ‘super social engagement’ that may enable them to engage and effectively co-regulate and calm their perpetrator. We operationally define this capacity to co-regulate and calm the perpetrator as appeasement.” Unlike “Stockholm Syndrome,” the idea of appeasement actually does describe well what happened in that bank: women using their social skills to calm their captor, who then developed an emotional attachment to them that ended up saving their lives.

There are many other examples of “Stockholm Syndrome” being used to dismiss the actions and emotional state of victims (especially women) over the years but I’ll just jump back to this most recent example: Yocheved Lifshitz. She’s constantly described as a grandmother, which she is, but she and her husband (who is still being held hostage) are peace activists who have helped countless Palestinians cross over to Israeli hospitals to receive the medical treatment they can’t get in Gaza. She’s not an idiot, or a mentally frail woman who flipped from traumatized hostage to heart-eyed motherly caregiver because one of her captors happened to smile at her. She acknowledged that her abduction was horrific, and then acknowledged that she and her fellow hostages were treated relatively well once they arrived in their prison. She clearly formed an emotional connection with her captors, which is very smart! As a peace activist I’m going to guess that she already sympathized with the plight of the Palestinian people but even if she was a staunch Zionist who thought Palestinians were less than human and deserved extermination, it would STILL BE SMART to put that aside and use her skills of appeasement to survive.

There’s a lot to be disgusted by in the reporting, the media coverage, and the public response to this conflict, but this relatively minor bit of pseudoscience, branding Lifshitz with “Stockholm Syndrome,” deserves to be called out for what it is: a naked attempt to infantilize an adult woman, to remove her agency and cast her as a confused old grandmother whose words should be ignored. Because to actually listen to her would be to expose the world to some difficult truths: “victims” can be proactive, that elderly women can have fully formed opinions that differ from their culture’s mainstream ideology, and that people don’t become terrorists in a vacuum, and that even the people in and around terrorist organizations like Hamas are humans with their own motivations.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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