An Insider’s Guide to Surviving a Kidnapping


Before the Monday, April 7 Program on Negotiation event even began, audience members looked at one another apprehensively. No one seemed to know quite what to expect from a lecture by Harvard Kennedy School mid-career MPA student Christopher Voss entitled “What to do in case of a hostage situation.” Clearly that uncertainty did not dampen attendance, as Pound 100 swelled past capacity to standing-room only.

A retired 24-year veteran of the FBI, Voss originally brought his experience to Harvard as a member of the Program on Negotiation staff. During his career with the government, Voss was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator, the National Security Council Hostage Working Group’s hostage negotiation subject matter expert, and the U.S.’s hostage negotiation expert representative to the G-8. This work earned him numerous decorations, including the Attorney General’s Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement and the FBI Agents Association Award for Distinguished and Exemplary Service.

Voss began his presentation, “Power Tools for Survival” by quoting the 19th century lawyer, soldier and poet, Eugene Ware, and laying out the evening’s central theme – “What to do if the fates turn against you.” He gave the audience a literal interpretation on his program’s title, presenting an actual “how-to” guide for someone who has been kidnapped. The main “power tools” in Voss’ supply are “The Power of Respect,” “The Power of Calm,” and “The Power of Time”.

Voss broke down the stages of a kidnapping, introducing each with a sound bite from a famous film and giving each a catchy, memorable name. Such games and mnemonics play key roles not only in Voss’s stage presence, but also in his list of recommendations to potential hostages. “There are no specific rules to follow,” Voss said. “Really, you need to stay mentally active.” He continued, “Over 95% of hostages, up to 98%, usually survive. So then the issue becomes how to survive psychologically.”

Throughout the stages of kidnapping, the hostage potentially has influence over his or her own fate and may wield this influence by choosing one of three courses of action: fight, flight, or float. Voss likened each stage to an animal; predictably, lions for fight and cheetahs for flight. When Voss then asked his audience what creature might represent floating, no one managed to guess the manatee.

Voss described the floating option as “just drifting in the current. Much of the time [floating] is going to be what you want to do.”

The mixed audience, which included HLS and Kennedy School students, as well as other members of the Harvard community, laughed along with Voss as he referenced the notorious “Caddyshack” line, “Be the ball Billy, be the ball,” to caution against fighting one’s captors.

“Be the hostage, be the hostage,” Voss said. “Physical resistance is met with increased physical abuse.”

Voss cautioned against the instinct of fighting captors at any time after the initial abduction. “They expect you to fight, they are prepared to beat you into submission,” he said about this first transport stage. “But they aren’t going to kill you. If you fight at any other time, it’s a good way to get yourself killed. You will pay dearly for it, and anyone else being held with you will pay dearly for it.”

In addition to outlining the options available to a hostage, Voss led his audience through the four stages of kidnapping, represented by the phrase “At Home” – abduction, transport, housing and outcome – and he explained the best options available at each point.

As the FBI and similar agencies learn more about the methods of survival, the traditional mindset towards the preservation of honor during captivity has begun to change. Voss used the experience of Mike Durant, U.S. Army (ret.), who was taken hostage in 1993 by Somalis led by the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Mogadishu, as an illustration of such changes. To survive Durant followed closely the letter – if not the spirit – of his captors’ commands.

Voss described this shift in mentality. “Durant decided it was stupid to get killed for refusing to say certain things. There was this stupid idea that you can’t think, you can’t respond.”

“You can survive with honor,” Voss continued. “It isn’t cowardly to live.” Describing the value of life, he then added pragmatically, “The U.S. government paid a lot of money to train these people.” Voss returned to this utilitarian view of kidnappers several times during the evening, reiterating that kidnappers care about the bottom line and that a hostage is really a commodity to be exchanged. “Kidnappers are organized people. They function very much like a business,” he said.

When asked about kidnapper’s attitudes towards injuring hostages, Voss replied in a very matter of fact tone, “They are like Pavlov’s dog once they know they are going to get paid. We tell them that we don’t accept damaged goods.”

Voss clearly holds certain survivors in the highest regard, and he uses their experiences to augment and develop his own expertise. In addition to Durant, Voss outlined the accounts of Pepe Escobar, who was nabbed while leading a tour group in Ecuador; AP reporter Terry Anderson, who was held for six years in Lebanon; and Roy Hallums, a U.S. contractor held for almost a year in Iraq.

With admiration, Voss relayed the attitude that sustained Hallums through his ordeal. Describing the instance when six heavily armed men simply walked into Hallums’ office, leaving him nowhere to go, Voss quoted him as saying, “I made the decision not to die at that moment.”

Perhaps as much as any aspect of his own training, Escobar’s story inspired Voss’ talk throughout the evening. At the close of his presentation, Voss surprised the audience by revealing that Escobar was sitting in the front row and had been present for the entire evening. Voss invited him to the front to join in accepting questions.

As a survivor, Escobar offered his own advice to the room of potential hostages on how to avoid being taken in the first place. “Minimize your exposure,” he said. “No one has to know who you are, or what you have.”

Perhaps to reassure his audience, or perhaps to renew their faith in those who would be fighting for their release, Voss closed by saying, “Negotiators will never say no. From my end, the word ‘no’ will never come out of my mouth.”

The Program on Negotiation sponsored this event.

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