Personal and academic blog. Explores the borderlands between rhetoric, politics and intelligence.


Ken Bigley and the Stockholm Syndrome

The British engineer Ken Bigley is held hostage in Iraq under threat of execution. As spectators we can't help being touched by the drama - especially as it has widened from a political issue to a family matter. The developments in this horrible situation can perhaps be explained by the dynamics of rhetorical persuasion.

At the outset the kidnappers? demands were clear-cut: after the now common denunciations of the US-British occupation of Iraq, they demanded the release of a number of women prisoners from Iraqi prisons. Ken Bigley's family answered this message - and thereby took the part of the opponent in this rhetorical "dialogue" (Tony Blair and the government has taken this role to a lesser degree so you could argue that this is a trialogue). As it has been noted in English media (e.g. The Independent - but exactly which issue is unknown as it has gone astray in my humble abode) the message from the Bigley family changed drastically from their first statement to their next.

At first they blamed the government for not caring anything for Ken Bigley (thereby echoing Bigley's own - and certainly instructed - messages on grainy internet footage). But in their second message they focused much more on family values (Ken Bigley's mother is in her 80'ies and the stress of the situation takes a heavy toll on her), giving the kidnappers some credit and acknowledging that they already had won a victory by getting the world's attention. They should now spare the innocent citizen that had been their means of getting that attention.

As noted in the Independent this shift certainly bears the marks of professional hostage negotiations ? and a strong hint that the family had gotten some firm directions from government experts. By admitting a success for the kidnappers they try to buy time. And the more time goes by, the more a relationship between hostage and kidnappers develop ? the so called Stockholm Syndrome.

That this strategy has had some success can be seen in the latest development in the case. Now the kidnappers have stated that they need to define if Ken Bigley is British or Irish (his mother is Irish). Rhetorically this is a weaker position than their previous, where an "either or" could decide the entire case (much like a clear-cut criminal case - has it been done or not). Now they suddenly would have to go through two stages of deliberation before they could do anything. It will be much harder to justify his death if he was defined not to be Irish. Their opponents on the English side has had all the years under Tony Blair and New Labour to find out that a simple message - and thereby rhetorical construction - is much more powerful than the on-the-one-side-and-the-other cases that real life most often presents us with.

Hopefully this rhetorical battle spares the life of the one it's all about: helpless Ken Bigley.

Stop press: It seems that it just might:


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