Terry Anderson, former hostage in Lebanon; author, Den of Lions
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TERRY ANDERSON, former hostage in Lebanon; author, Den of Lions: My
fundamentalist radical Shiite Muslim kidnappers went out and bought me a brand new
Bible. And I kept it for six and a half years. But I read that and read that and read
that, and it was kind of like, what do you mean forgive your enemies? Now? How about
we wait until they unchain me and stop beating on me and then I’ll work on it, you
know. But it doesn’t work that way.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON, Producer: American journalist Terry Anderson was held
hostage in Lebanon for 7 years by Shiite Muslim radicals. Last year he returned to
Lebanon for the first time since he ordeal to see how he and the country had changed
since the end of Lebanon’s 17-year civil war.
ANDERSON: My sense of the country is that they really have put the war behind
them. They really have started to grow into a nation. That’s been the big problem,
you know. The Lebanese didn’t have a real common identity. It was part of Greater
Syria fifty years ago.
DAVIDSON: Terry Anderson, on his return to Lebanon, is the topic on this
edition of Common Ground. Common Ground, a program on world affairs and
the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation, I’m Mary Gray
Of the seventeen Americans taken hostage during the 1980s, Terry Anderson was held
the longest. From 1985 to 1991 he was nearly always chained, often kept blindfolded
and sometimes put in solitary confinement in dank basement cells. But Anderson has a
remarkable resiliency for someone put to such extremes and almost since his release
he has wanted to return to the place of his captivity. They waited until his Lebanese
wife, Madeline, felt it was absolutely safe for Anderson. They took their daughter,
whom Anderson had never met until his release, because his wife was only three months
pregnant when he was kidnapped. The return to Lebanon was, in part, to film a
documentary for CNN, and one of Madeline’s first jobs was to request an interview
Hezbollah, the group responsible for Terry Anderson’s imprisonment.
ANDERSON: And… as I said, my wife is Lebanese and forgiveness is not real
high on her list of priorities.
DAVIDSON: And Hezbollah are the group that took you hostage…
ANDERSON: Yeah, yeah… but she did, she did the job… went out and set up
the interview and I went out and did that interview while I was there. It was
interesting. I wanted to go back. You know… look… I had good times in Lebanon too.
I’ve got family there, Matti’s family. I’ve got a lot of friends there and I’ve
always been fascinated with the country. It’s an exciting place. And even during the
war, it was fascinating, beyond the violence. So I wanted to go back and see what had
happened to it. This was not a tour of old prison cells. I wasn’t looking for any old
guards to chat over our mutual history. I just wanted to see what had happened to
Lebanon. Whether they were getting it together, whether they were rebuilding the
country. What happened to all that hatred? What happened to all that violence? And
it was fascinating, because the hatred is gone.
DAVIDSON: And how does that happen?
ANDERSON: I can’t answer that. I don’t know. Except they were very, very tired
of it. Look, it’s seventeen years of civil war, now you would think, now there’s a
generation and a half that grew up with no respect for social norms, no respect for
law and order, only the power of the gun. Now what kind of people are they going to
make at the age of 20 or 25? And I thought, boy, this is going to be a real problem.
But it doesn’t seem to be a real problem. Everybody’s put away their guns. It’s an
amazing transformation. They still have rivalries. There is still a great deal of
sectarianism, you know Lebanon is made up of tribes. There are various Christian
tribes, there are various Muslim tribes, there’s a Jewish tribe. And there is still a
great deal of competition, but now it’s political competition and economic competition,
it’s not in violence. The only fighting going on now is in the South, where Hezbollah
is fighting against the Israeli occupation of the strip of about ten miles in the
southern part of the country, in what the Israelis call the “security zone.” And, in
fact, that has made them very popular. Much more popular than they ever were before.
Everybody in Lebanon…
ANDERSON: Yeah. Everybody in Lebanon agrees with them. The Israelis should go.
And Hezbollah is the group that is fighting them most strongly. So they get support
DAVIDSON: So everybody, everybody supports them? Did that surprise you?
ANDERSON: Well, the whole thing surprised me. I was startled by a number of things. I
know that the Lebanese have incredible energy. And great persistence. I mean, we would have
“cease fires” in the war, when everybody knew that “cease fires” never lasted. This could be
the 150th “cease fire”—it would last three days. And by God, somebody would be out there
repairing their building, and putting new glass in, and maybe even starting a new building.
DAVIDSON: It’s kind of like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill.
ANDERSON: Yeah, and so I knew that there was going to be a great outburst of energy
when the war stopped. And there has been. It was fascinating, and the Lebanese are amazing
people. There is still some bad feeling, not everybody has given up, particularly in the very
right-wing Christian groups. There are still people who hold on to some of those hatreds, but
not very many of them. And as far as everybody else is concerned, all they want is peace. All
they want is peace. They want to make some money, they want to build a decent life, and
surprisingly they are doing it. They got problems. They still have a very big problem with
poor people, what used to be refugees during the war, particularly from the south, moved up
to the suburbs of Beirut. Now that the war is over they don’t want to go home. So how many
capital cities in the world have this problem, in developing countries? So they got a lot of
poor people out there. They got, you know, half a million people without running water. And
strangely enough Hezbollah is trucking water into most of… as part of their social welfare
program, because most of them are Shiia. And there are other problems, I mean the Syrians are
there. The Syrians have political hegemony over Lebanon. And that’s not going to change in the
near future. It will change eventually, but right now they pretty well run things at the very
top. The president of Lebanon does not make many decisions without a trip to Damascus. But
they don’t interfere with the lower level life of Lebanon. Ordinary people don’t have any
problem with them…
DAVIDSON: You sound hopeful.
ANDERSON: I am hopeful. I’m hopeful because I know the Lebanese. And I think my sense
of the country is that very have put the war behind them, they really have started to grow
into a nation. That’s been the big problem you know. The Lebanese didn’t have a real common
identity. It was part of Greater Syria fifty years ago. Lebanese are Syrians. It’s never been
sufficient for a Lebanese to say “I’m Lebanese.” They always needed another word in there.
“I’m a Lebanese Christian,” “I’m a Maronite,” “I’m a Lebanese Druse,” “I’m a Shiia.”
DAVIDSON: So, there wasn’t the one common identity?
ANDERSON: But they are beginning to build it. They are beginning to build a sense that,
it’s more important to be Lebanese than it is to be Christian or Druse or Muslim. It will be
a long time coming. It will be a long time. You don’t do that in one generation. But they’ve
never done it before. The country only became independent in 1943.
DAVIDSON: Right, and then it had a constitution that really highlighted those
ANDERSON: Still does. Still does have a confessional constitution. And that’s something
they are going to have get beyond at some point. It is a case study for the rest of the world.
Particularly now when you look at some of the countries in North Africa. When you look at
what’s happening in former Yugoslavia. How does a multi-ethnic society meld itself into a
country? How do these people live together? And this is a microcosm.
DAVIDSON: That does seem to the question at the end of this century.
ANDERSON: Well, this is a very tiny country. This place is only 38 miles wide by 120
miles long. I don’t know, a dozen, fifteen, more Christian sects, four or five Muslim sects,
all kinds of political divisions. And they didn’t get along. For seventeen years they had
all-out war. It wasn’t entirely a civil war. There were a lot of people involved. Israelis,
Palestinians, Syrians, Libyans, Iranians. At one point, Americans, French, Italians, British.
There were a lot of outside pressures on Lebanon that in many ways helped keep the war going.
But finally it ended. It did come to an end. Syria decided it didn’t want the war any more.
The situation in the Middle East changed, some of the pressures were taken off. And they quit,
and they quit sincerely. They collected all the guns, except for Hezbollah. They disbanded all
the militias, the army took over, the government took over. I had to laugh when I got back,
because my driver got a traffic ticket for going through a red light. I’d never seen that
before. You couldn’t get a traffic ticket in Beirut. The cops wouldn’t dare. Everybody had
them out-gunned. So, yeah, I’m optimistic.
DAVIDSON: So that’s a real symbol of the restoration of civil society, if you’re going
to get a traffic ticket.
ANDERSON: Yeah, and you know what… they like it. They like it. The other Lebanese in
the car were happy to see him get a ticket, because it meant that there was a civil authority
there. There was somebody in charge.
DAVIDSON: What is Hezbollah in control of now?
ANDERSON: Hezbollah isn’t in control of anything really. It doesn’t work that way
anymore, and that is one of the encouraging things. It use to be that a militia controlled
its area. It had its check points, it had its flags, and when you went in there, it was like
going into a mini-state. You were under somebody else’s judicial and religious and military
control. And the State had nothing to say about it. Now the only place Hezbollah carries
weapons is in the combat area in the South. And they don’t carry them even in their own
villages. They take them, go make their attacks, fight with the Israelis, and the Israeli
proxy militia. [They] come home, put their gun away. And the police provide security. And the
army, even in the Hezbollah villages. So they don’t really control territory anymore. Nobody
does, and that was the agreement that they made that allowed them to keep their weapons when
everybody else gave them up, so that they could fight the Israelis.
DAVIDSON: But when you went back, you didn’t specifically try to seek out the people
who had kept you as a hostage?
ANDERSON: No, no, I wasn’t interested. Don’t have any thing to say. I did interview
the Secretary General of Hezbollah and a couple of their social welfare officials. It was part
of the story. I am, after all, a journalist and I’m not going to ignore a part of the story
because of any personal considerations. And I was curious about them as well. Had they
changed? Interestingly enough, I did not ask for…
DAVIDSON: Have they? What did you think?
ANDERSON: Well, I did not ask for and didn’t receive an apology. When I asked them
what they thought of the kidnapping, they said it was a temporary situation.
DAVIDSON: Seven years.
ANDERSON: Yeah, it wouldn’t happen any more, “Inshallah,” God willing.
DAVIDSON: There is no hostage taking now is there?
ANDERSON: Not in Lebanon, no, no.
DAVIDSON: They’re not using that as a….
ANDERSON: Nobody would allow Westerners to be pun—damaged now. It would economically,
it would hurt too much. Even, and there are some pretty bad guys still in Lebanon out in the
Bekaa valley, but nobody will allow them to bother anybody in the country. They have changed
in the sense that they have seven members of parliament. So they have a stake in the political
system now, you see. They’re not overthrowing the system. They are working within it. And
that’s encouraging. They were as hard line as ever about the Israelis. I asked them, you
know… Is there any situation in which you can foresee yourselves co-existing with Israel?
And they absolutely refused to acknowledge that that was possible. I happen to believe,
personally, that if Israel withdraws from Lebanon, then Hezbollah is not going to be very
interested in attacking Israel. They are Lebanese before they are anything else. But there is
no way to prove that unless the Israelis try it and that doesn’t seem likely to happen any
time soon. They have changed in a lot of ways—they haven’t changed their view of the world.
They’ve changed their view of what they think is a practical way to approach the world. They
told me 5 years ago when they released me, “This was not a useful tactic.”
DAVIDSON: To take hostages?
ANDERSON: To take hostages. We didn’t get what we wanted, and we’re not going to do
it any more.” And they haven’t. Look, if the American government had paid Hezbollah in Lebanon
to release the hostages, which they tried for a little while, remember their “arms for
hostages” stuff? And then they stopped. If they had bought all the hostages out, how many
Americans do you think would have been kidnapped in subsequent years?
DAVIDSON: At least as many.
ANDERSON: Yeah, lots. It’s a marketable commodity. Now this is a very, very difficult
decision to make. I mean, how would you like to be the President facing my family and saying
to them, “Yes, I know you want your brother, husband, son, home, and I know he’s innocent,
but I’m not going to do it. I’m sorry, it would be wrong.” How would you like to be in that
position? Very, very difficult. But now we know that that is, in fact, the right position.
DAVIDSON: I was going to ask you if you thought that was appropriate, at least publicly,
the stance was…
ANDERSON: There are other things you can do. Okay? You can, as the U.S. government did,
and the allies did, try to persuade the Iranians, who were backing it, that this was not
useful, that it was hurting them more than it was helping them. You can try to persuade
Hezbollah that it’s not working, which they did in the end persuade them. You can work around
the edges, you can talk, but you cannot pay. Because you are putting so many other people in
jeopardy. It’s tough. It’s hard. The President should care about individuals. He should. But
he also has to care about the country and the welfare of people as a whole.
DAVIDSON: And your sister met with the President, met with President Reagan?
ANDERSON: Sure, sure, both my sisters did, and my brothers and my whole family, were
pounding on his desk saying you know, “Do something, do something, do something.” And then of
course Ollie North went over there and started trading weapons for hostages, to which my
sister said, “Well, yeah, I said do something, but I didn’t say do something stupid.”
DAVIDSON: We’ll take a short break and when we return Anderson talks about the faith
that kept him going.
ANDERSON: I am a Christian, and I am required to forgive as a part of the bargain, as
a part of the contract.
DAVIDSON: You’re listening to Common Ground and my guest is journalist Terry
Anderson who was working for the Associated Press in Lebanon when he was captured and held
hostage by Shiite radicals. His ordeal began on March 16, 1985, and didn’t end until
December 5, 1991—2,454 days. Anderson is still a writer and teaches journalism at Columbia
University in New York.
Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan
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DAVIDSON: During his seven years as a hostage, Anderson kept notes and wrote poetry,
just one way to keep his sanity. One poem he titled “Stigmata,” began:
Seven years in chains while love lies barren
While children grow;
One lost, one not known;
The others left unseeded now will never be.
Grim terrible years in subterranean cells,
A pawn of evil hypocrites, passed from hand to hand across the Muslim archipelago;
Taped and bagged like some dead meat.
Despised, inedible, but useful in a trade.
Harsh and painful years of darkness, damp and dirt;
Humiliations heaped in myriads
Hatred and contempt, perceived, returned
Wasted, empty years?
Not quite – no years are empty in a life.
That depends on what is made of them, and after.
Anderson wrote many poems and they’re not only about himself. They are also about the victims
of Lebanon’s cruel war. The lives of children destroyed, the mutilated, the dead. I asked
Terry Anderson why he seems not to harbor any hatred after all those years cut off from his
family, with not even a word from those he loved.
ANDERSON: I don’t have time for that, and I don’t have space for that. That was a
decision I made a long time ago. It wasn’t easy at the beginning.
DAVIDSON: A decision while you were still a prisoner, a hostage, or…?
ANDERSON: Sure, sure. First book I got was a Bible. And I still read it.
DAVIDSON: And you had asked for that?
ANDERSON: Yeah, I had to read. You know, my fundamentalist, radical Shiite Muslim
kidnappers went out and bought me a brand new Bible, and I kept it for six and a half years.
DAVIDSON: There were some real quirky things that they did.
ANDERSON: Yeah, very strange. But I read that, and read that, and read that. And you
know, it was kind of like, what do you mean forgive your enemies? Now? How about we wait until
they unchain me and stop beating on me, and then I’ll work on it, you know. But it doesn’t
work that way. So I do that. It’s also pretty practical. Very pragmatic. I mean, I have a
wonderful wife. I have a fantastic family, I do things that I enjoy, that are interesting.
You know, I have a great home, and life is exciting.
DAVIDSON: I was wondering, what’s important to you now?
ANDERSON: Well, I mean, how would that be if I just sat up here in the evening, kind
of nursing my anger and my bitterness. I mean that wouldn’t be much fun for me or for anybody
else would it? It would be kind of a stupid thing to do. So I can’t do that, but it’s not, as
I said, it’s a process. You work on it. You work on it all the time. And you learn things as
you go along. You learn that first, that it is a process, that it’s not a switch. You know you
can’t say “I forgive you” and walk off and your heart is free and your soul is clean, and no,
it doesn’t work like that. And you learn, I guess, eventually that it’s not about them. It’s
not about the things they did. Or whether or not they are sorry, which they are not. It’s
about you. It’s about what’s in your heart and how you’re going to handle it. Which is why I
can say, “Yeah, I’m not angry at them, I don’t hate them.” I don’t like them. I think they
did some pretty bad things to me and my family, but I wish them no harm, I wish them no evil,
and that is sufficient. Although I have to say, I have this recurrent thought every once in a
while, that I’m going to go down into Manhattan and I’m going to catch a taxi, and I am going
to jump into the back seat, and the driver is going to turn around and say “Hello Mr. Terry,
how are you? Long time, no?” (laughter)
DAVIDSON: Oh, Oh… like on that day in March in 1985.
DAVIDSON: In your book, you write a lot about your faith as a Catholic and how
important that was to you. And shortly after you were taken as a hostage, you were put
together with Father Jenco. And I’m just curious, if that time spent with him helped you
endure the rest of your imprisonment.
ANDERSON: Oh, absolutely, certainly. Father Marty was my mentor. He heard my first
confession in twenty-five years. I had left the Church as a boy, as a teenager. And I used to
call myself an agnostic, which I now define as meaning I was too lazy or too scared to think
about it. And I was a fairly aggressive agnostic, until about 6 months before I was kidnapped.
I went back to the Church for a number of reasons, personal and professional. And I was trying
to deal with that. I was trying to understand that—Okay—I’m back in the Church, I’m a
Catholic, I’m a Christian. What do I do with that now? What does that require of me in my
job today and in my life today? Because I’d messed up my life pretty bad.
DAVIDSON: Pretty big test was put before you.
ANDERSON: And then I got a lot more time to think about it. And then suddenly I was
blessed with this wonderful priest. Father Marty was an unusual man, most unusual priest I’ve
ever seen. Sweet, sweet gentle, gentle man. He could be angry, like anybody else…
DAVIDSON: Well, he was a human being.
ANDERSON: Yeah, but he was a very gentle man, and we spent a lot of time together
talking about a lot of things. And of course we were friends after I came home until he died
last year, unfortunately of cancer. He was a marvelous man. We also had a Presbyterian pastor,
Ben Weir, who was with us for a time also. A very gentle man, a very highly intelligent man
and with very great faith. And so we got it coming and going. And yes, that was important.
That was important. It gave us a structure. It gave me a structure for the rest of those years
after Father Marty left; there were 5 years after he left, that he had helped build that
structure that I could hang on to.
DAVIDSON: I was wondering, in the poetry that you wrote and that you have throughout
the book, in one of them you elude to the scars that you say will never fade, and should in
fact be borne proudly, and I’m wondering, what scars are you aware of today? You’ve been out,
well not quite as long as you were a hostage, but are the scars fading?
ANDERSON: Oh sure, mostly. I mean, one of the, we had a long process of recovery, and
with a lot of help. Psychiatric help, a couple of experts on hostage decompression, that are
now very good friends, and a lot of support from people, but we had to work at it. We had to
build our relationship again. I had to build a family with my daughter, she was six and a half
when I met her. She was born 3 months after I was taken. I was not a whole person. Nobody can
go through those 7 years and not be damaged. Unfortunately, some of the damage was not easy
to detect. Remember when I came home, I was so happy and outgoing, and looked very sane and
DAVIDSON: You looked very fit.
ANDERSON: And, well, everybody assumed that that was true. But I wasn’t all that fit.
There were a lot of things under that eager shell, that needed to be dealt with, and we took
a long time to deal with them. I figure we only began to get most of it straight after two or
three years. And there are a couple of things we work on from time to time. Which is not a bad
habit. Scars. I don’t know if there are any scars. Look it’s seven years of my life. I’m
forty-nine years old today. That’s 1/7th of my life I spent in there. It’s an important 7
years. It is not the most important seven years. See, and what we do, what we’re trying to
do, and what we have been trying to do, is put it in its proper proportion. It’s there, it’s
not going to go away. The memories are there. Those things happened, the terrible things
happened. Some good things happened too, and we want to keep those as well.
DAVIDSON: The good things like your faith, the renewal of your faith or?
ANDERSON: Sure, there’s that. There’s friendship?
DAVIDSON: What would you count as the good things?
ANDERSON: I had a lot of time to think about things. A lot of time to get my
priorities straight. A lot of time to…
DAVIDSON: And more time than most people, especially than our American society allows.
ANDERSON: A lot of time to poke around in my head and turn over some rocks, try to
deal with it. There are some good things. And coming home after seven years to find my lady
standing there is not a bad way to begin a new life. But, you know, some people, a lot of
people have peak experiences. You know, for a lot of people it was Vietnam. I have, I am
involved in a Vietnam discussion group on the Internet, and there are some really damaged
Vietnam vets out there, still. Twenty-five years later.
DAVIDSON: And that was the defining experience.
ANDERSON: That was the defining experience for their lives.
DAVIDSON: And you’re a Vietnam vet yourself.
ANDERSON: I’m a Vietnam vet myself. I was in the Marine Corps. That hostage
experience you would think could be a, a peak experience, a defining experience. I don’t
want it to be. See, I got twenty, thirty years to live yet, God willing. And while that’s
an important part of my life, to date it is one-seventh. See there’s another sixth-seventh
that are just as important. And if I can keep that balance right, not forget it, not hide it,
not put it away, but integrate it into the rest of my life, see then I can still wait for my
peak experience. It may be coming down the road next year. What do I know?
DAVIDSON: Journalist Terry Anderson has been my guest on Common Ground. He
chronicles the years he spent as a hostage in Lebanon in his book, Den of Lions. For
Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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