On this day in 1973 in Stockholm, Sweden, Jan-Erik Olsson, a 32-year-old convict, took four hostages while attempting to rob a bank. A six-day standoff ensued, during which time the hostages, trapped in a bank vault, came to sympathize with their captor. Although they were threatened and terrorized, they ended up defending him at his trial and paying for his lawyer.
The phrase “Stockholm syndrome” was coined by criminologist and psychologist Nils Bejerot. It refers to a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings toward their captors.
One of the most famous incidents of Stockholm syndrome is that of Patty Hearst, the 19-year-old heiress to the Hearst publishing fortune. She was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a terrorist group. After ransom negotiations broke down, the SLA kept Hearst bound and blindfolded in a closet for months, forcing her to memorize radical left-wing literature on the pain of death.
She lived with her captors for over a year, and although she was raped, tortured, and isolated, she eventually joined her kidnappers and became a revolutionary. She took part in bank robberies (banks again!), traveled around the country with her captors, promoted their propaganda, and more.
Feelings of identification and empathy with your captors may seem irrational on the surface, but it’s surprisingly common. People stay in abusive relationships all the time and claim to love their abuser. These feelings of loyalty experienced by the victims towards their abuser stem from fear, threat, and a gut instinct to survive. Victims can become emotionally indebted to their captors for being spared death.
Stockholm syndrome doesn’t appear as a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States. Yet we are witnessing a surge of the syndrome in today’s political climate.
I posit that the Republican leadership today at all levels of government could be said to be suffering from Stockholm syndrome. Many of them have been abused, terrorized, and threatened by Trump. Still, most continue to defend him, insist the 2020 election was stolen from him, and believe the January 6 insurrection a the U.S. Capitol was no big deal (a tourist visit!).
Can we please get these people the mental health help they need? Oh, right. They’d rather cut health care resources.