Captivity Pageant

December 1979: Christmas comes for the Great Satan

"If I ever get back to the United States, and get into politics, maybe I'll become a leader there," he said. He joked that years later the two of them would be shaping world events. Ebtekar laughed gaily at the idea.

While Coffin, Howard, and Gumbleton looked on with apparent approval, the four captives performed precisely as their captors wished. Each read a statement critical of the United States. Hermening and Lauterbach read their statements in a flat monotone. Lauterbach, his hair long and his beard untrimmed, seemed particularly pained to be participating. Plotkin, who had been trapped at the embassy by chance on the day of the takeover, seemed more comfortable. Subic, who often held the microphone, appeared to be speaking in full earnest, even cheerfully.

Chubby and blond, Subic had been working as a clerk at the embassy and began making himself useful to the Iranians on the day of the takeover, leading them around the compound and identifying his bound, blindfolded colleagues by name and job description. Since then he had been allowed special privileges: a telephone, warm clothing, a steady supply of snack foods from the embassy commissary. In return he had helped with things like the Christmas decorations. Hermening had been made Subic's roommate, and Subic had helped convert the young Marine into a more pliable prisoner.

Some of the statement Hermening read had been prepared for him, and some of it—about getting letters from home and receiving medical care when it was needed—was what he had written. The students had added lines about how the American government had sold fertilizer to Iran that killed all its crops. Hermening read on. The statement summarized the American-led coup that unseated Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953, before Hermening was born; told how the United States had placed the shah on the throne; and said that Hermening and the other hostages were suffering because America refused to own up to its crimes and return the shah to face judgment in Iran.

"It hurts us to have to say that, but that is what we believe to be the situation," he read. "We will always be Americans and still pray that they make the right decision as soon as possible."

Clean-shaven and neatly groomed, his hair trimmed and parted down the middle, Hermening looked hale and fit; he towered over the guards in the room, and despite his wooden performance he did not seem like a man being forced to do something against his will. Although he felt awkward about reading the statement even as the words came out, he thought, Who is going to believe this? Clearly the statement was being made under duress, so he didn't worry about it.

Jerry Plotkin read with apparent feeling: "Why is the exshah given protection and sanctuary in the United States of America? He is an accused criminal and admitted his abuses of power on Iranian TV before he was dethroned. Why isn't he extradited like any other alleged criminal would be?"

Only glancing at his prepared statement, Subic offered the most dramatic personal testimony. He wore a colorful sweater and had grown a thin beard. In his short time of traveling in Iran before the embassy was taken, he said, he had begun to see the evils wrought by the American-supported shah. "We started to see more and more poor people, people without homes, food, education. I asked myself, what had the shah done? My thinking started to turn around. My eyes and mind were starting to awake to the truth."

Subic then stepped around to the front of the table where the four sat, holding the microphone in one hand and in the other displaying a "special" Christmas card that "the hostages" had made for Khomeini. It was actually his own work. He read from the card: "A Christmas wish especially for you, Imam Khomeini. Merry Christmas. May Christmas bring you lasting joy and lovely memories. Merry Christmas, the American Hostages, 25 December 1979. Tehran, Iran." If he was aware of how he might appear to his fellow Americans, he showed no sign of it. He seemed proud of himself, sincere, and entirely at ease.

Two weeks after the Christmas celebrations a nearly hour-long film was released, and portions were played on all three American TV networks. The film had aired in Tehran over the holidays, and had been offered at that time to American TV. But despite the huge interest in the hostages, the networks balked at the conditions: a fee of $21,250 and a promise to air the film in full, along with windy speeches from Iranian captors. After a few days the students dropped their demands and handed over the film. Their propaganda show was meaningless if no one saw it.

Trapped on the third floor of Iran's Foreign Ministry, Bruce Laingen, the embassy's charge d'affaires, its highest-ranking diplomat; his political secretary, Vic Tomseth; and Mike Howland, an assistant security officer, had access to Iranian television. The three had left the embassy for a meeting at the Foreign Ministry on the day of the takeover, and had been stranded there ever since. They were not hostages, but they were not free, either. When Laingen saw the propaganda film of his cooperative staff members, he was shocked. He wrote angrily in his diary that evening, "I think tonight I have learned to hate."

... Far and away the bulk of the film was of these hostages reading a prepared statement, praising the revolutionary zeal of their captors, reciting the misdeeds of the embassy in supporting the Shah, citing documents discovered in the embassy to suggest "espionage," and calling on the US government to return the Shah to Iran. All this was done in what appeared to be a rehearsal reading, seriatim, by the hostages of their statement, the desk in front of them displaying "evidence" of one kind or another. Only one (Steve Lauterbach) of the four seemed in any way hesitant in what he was reading. The hostage who seemed to preside, Joe Subic, clearly was, or seemed to be, relishing his role. A young marine, Kevin Hermening, too, seemed relaxed and at ease. The fourth, the businessman Jerry Plotkin, read a separate statement, and he, too, seemed in control of himself.
All of this culminated in young Subic displaying a Christmas card from which he read a special greeting to Imam Khomeini on behalf of the hostages. All of this is incredible. I have heard of brainwashing and mind control. I have read of such and recognize that in all hostage situations this is commonplace. But here is an example involving people I know and whom I respect ... Eight weeks of confinement and harassment by sound from the crowds in the streets brought the hostages to the point of apparent servitude to their captors' purposes. And all this in a setting of Christmas with the two priests sitting docilely, watching and listening to the entire charade.
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Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. This article is drawn from his book Guests of the Ayatollah, to be published in April by Grove/Atlantic. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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