What Makes a Good Prisoner?

Last summer, when the Islamic State started publicizing the murders of kidnapped journalists and aid workers, what grabbed my attention wasn’t the collection of brutal videos documenting their deaths, but the stories of who these people were while they were alive.

Safe at my Foreign Policy desk in Washington, D.C., I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of prisoner I would be if it were me being held captive in an orange jumpsuit instead of them.

Could I stay as calm and collected as James Foley, who (according to other prisoners held hostage with him) organized his cellmates into group discussions on various subjects to distract them from their captivity? Would I be as resilient as Steven Sotloff, who hid his Jewish identity from his captors, but still managed to fast on religious holidays by faking stomachaches and refusing food? Or would I turn to faith like Kaela Mueller, killed by a drone strike in February, who used her time in prison to strengthen her relationship with God?

Due to the nature of my job in Washington, these questions are not ones I have to confront in my daily work. But reporting in the field brings different threats, and our security training in Nairobi isn’t only preparing us for our upcoming trip to DRC but also empowering us to make informed decisions when we report in hostile situations in the future.

Today we participated in an intensely realistic simulation of an al-Shabab attack, which allowed me to catch a small glimpse of how my mind and body would react to the fear that takes over in a life or death situation.

As our group took a stroll around our hotel grounds, actors playing the part of militants staged an attack by jumping out from behind a blind corner. Although we knew in advance we were entering some kind of simulation, we didn’t have time to assess who the actors even were before being blindfolded and forced to the ground. With the immediate loss of eyesight, every movement, sound, and smell was amplified. The group of actors were yelling in a language we didn’t understand, and despite knowing initially that this was just a simulation, the loss of eyesight took away all familiarity and pushed my brain into a place somewhere between reality and imagination.

As women journalists, we’ve talked a lot this week (both in training and amongst ourselves) about the challenges we face in reporting that are less prevalent for our male colleagues. The obvious example that’s come up again and again is fear of sexual assault, the threat of which was insinuated in our simulation when our “captors” used our gender as leverage to send us further into panic. I’ll omit details for the sake of not getting too graphic in this blog post, but it was the threat of rape in the scenario that left me most panicked. (To clarify, this threat was part of the simulation, but was acted out intensely enough to feel very real.)

After about 25 minutes, when they finally called it all off, the simulation had done what it was supposed to do: my hands were shaking and sweaty, my blindfold was wet from tears, and I was relieved to open my eyes and see that many of the other fellows had similar reactions. As someone who prides herself on being able to talk her way out of most any situation, I was shocked by the way my panic translated to silence. My total loss of control over the situation sent my heart rate skyrocketing and my ability to rationalize right out the door.

After being freed from the situation, we sat in a circle to recount our individual experiences and go over what roles we inadvertently ended up playing in the group. Some of us tried to stay calm and negotiate; others tried to remain as neutral as possible; and others went back and forth between the two. Not one of us reacted the same way as any other, and in the end, the discussion allowed us to realize there is no right or wrong reaction in a life or death situation. Every decision you make has a 50 percent chance of working, and if that means you want to yell then yell, or run then run, or give in then give in. God forbid that moment comes, you don’t have to try to be a James Foley or a Steven Sotloff or a Kaela Mueller. And in fact, trying to be someone else instead of following your own gut could be what costs you your life.

-Siobhan O’Grady