Sunday, 24 September 2017

I will be forced to...

     There's something that happens a lot in movies and TV shows, and it always annoys me when it does. Scenario: Bad guy is threatening some evil act unless their demands are met. Let's say they're threatening to kill hostages if they don't receive a ransom. And then they says something like, "Do this, or I will be forced to kill a hostage."
     Forced. That's the part that always irks me, because it's such an obvious lie. Maybe it wouldn't bother me so much if it were actually refuted in words, but usually the hostages are rescued or the bomb is defused or the disaster averted by some heroic act of violence (usually aided by some clever detective work). I find myself wishing the negotiator or hero or whoever would just say something like this:

     "No. Let's be clear: Nothing I do forces you to kill hostages. You chose to create this situation, you took those hostages, and you are responsible for the choice to kill them or not. You don't get to pretend this is someone else's fault. You want to be in control? Fine. You're in control. But don't turn around and tell me I'm the one who decides whether they live or die."

     Of course, I'm not a trained hostage negotiator. I have no idea what they are taught about how to deal with this sort of situation, and it might be that what I long to hear in a crime drama is the exact opposite of what a knowledgeable professional would be saying in real life. Even so, in the TV drama, I'd like at least to hear the argument refuted, maybe not directly to the bad guy, but by someone on camera.

     To be sure, as I’ve written before, it can be rational to tie your hands, to make it impossible for you to change your mind about a course of action, so as to make for credible threats or promises. It can, therefore, be a perfectly sensible strategy for the hostage-taker to commit irrevocably to killing the hostages if the demands are not met. This was the whole idea behind Mutual Assured Destruction, which arguably helped prevent the Cold War from heating up. 
     But the antagonists in the Cold War went to great lengths to establish technical systems to actually take away the element of choice in order to render the retaliatory threat credible; the typical hostage-taker in a movie or TV show usually hasn’t had the time or resources to do that, and attempts to rely on getting people to believe them, that they’re 100% serious and they really really mean it, they’ll kill a hostage, they swear. And the trouble there is that it’s actually only half of what they need to convince people of, and the less important half at that; I might very easily believe you're willing to kill the hostages, but if I doubt you'll release them after I meet your demands, you'll have a hard time getting me to cooperate.  (This is probably the main reason there have been so very few airline hijackings since 2001; passengers and crew now believe there is absolutely nothing to be gained by complying or cooperating in any way.)

     So that's what bothers me about the "I will be forced to..." language. It's not just that it's a lie. It's that it's such a stupid lie, inconsistent with its own purpose on so many levels. It's uttered by someone who's trying to assert absolute control over the situation, while at the same time it disingenuously disavows that very control. Meanwhile, its success depends on creating trust (the trust that compliance will be rewarded) even as it undermines that very trust.