BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Chinese Vietnamese Burmese Thai Indonesian

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Asia-Pacific  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Thursday, 12 April, 2001, 07:49 GMT 08:49 UK
Hostage: The dreaded H word
Yellow ribbons are being displayed to show support for the EP-3 crew
The China crisis brought out the yellow ribbons again
The 24 crew of an American spy plane held in China have been freed. So were they "hostages" or merely "detainees"?

Politicians and diplomats are famous for their reluctance to call a spade a spade. When the dung hits the rotating air circulation device, their choice of words can become even more careful.

President Bush
The White House was reluctant to say "hostages"
The dispute between China and the United States over an American spy plane and its crew proved another showcase for such linguistic acrobatics.

At centre stage was the wrangling over whether the president's words of "regret" over the presumed death of a Chinese fighter pilot should become an "apology".

But at home, President Bush faced a second terminological front: were the 24 crew of the downed EP-3 being held "hostage" by the Chinese?

Locked in negotiations to bring the servicemen and women home, the Bush administration was cautious not to use the word "hostage".

'Hotel environment'

This confused families of those navy personnel cooling their heels in a "hotel environment" on Hainan Island.

"I definitely think Sean is a hostage there," said James Causon of his son's enforced stay.

The captive EP-3 aircraft
Was it a one-way trip?
In Washington, the halls of power began to ring with the "H" word. Richard Shelby (head of the Senate Intelligence Committee) and Henry Hyde (chairman of the House International Relations Committee) both publicly uttered the loaded noun.

"I would call them hostages. They are being held against their will," reasoned Mr Hyde.

If it was clear to people across the United States, including those on Capitol Hill, that the crew had been taken "hostage", why did President Bush shy away from the word?

Right-wing Republicans such as Mr Shelby and Mr Hyde were primarily interested in appealing to domestic opinion, said professor Simon Reich, director of research at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

I would call them hostages. They are being held against their will

Republican congressman Henry Hyde
The American public takes threats to the welfare of its military personnel very seriously. As citizens of a superpower, Americans are also keenly sensitive to the possibility of national humiliation.

Professor Reich said the tough talking was the "inevitable reaction of the right". The whole row may well make it easier for the US to increase military aid to the breakaway province of Taiwan - a policy advocated by the Republican right.

Softly, softly

"If the administration speaks softly to begin with, it can also take a stronger line later," said Professor Reich.

Anti-American poster in Tehran
The Iranian hostage crisis still looms large
Other commentators suggested it was the word "hostage" which stuck in the presidential throat. In the American psyche the word is tantamount to shouting "shark" at a beach.

Although more than 20 years and four presidents ago, the 444 days of the Iranian hostage crisis loom large in the nation's collective memory.

When a student mob invaded Tehran's US embassy on 4 November 1979, taking 90 staff hostage, not even those in the eye of the storm could foresee the epic drama that would unfold.

"I thought: 'If this thing lasts another 24 hours, we're going to be way behind in our work,'" said Colonel Chuck Scott, the then military attaché.

Colonel Scott, along with 51 others, did not come home for more than a year. The hostages were seen on TV screens across America - handcuffed, blindfolded and jostled by their captors.


Although the details of their rough treatment (including a series of mock executions) did not come to light until their release, the hostages' plight became a "national obsession", according to Time magazine in 1981.

President Jimmy Carter
The hostage crisis outlasted President Carter
Yellow ribbons were hung as symbols of solidarity with the hostages, the first outside the US home of the embassy's charges d'affaires.

The inability of Jimmy Carter's administration to master the intricacies of post-revolution Iranian politics and a fatally abortive rescue mission are often cited for the president's failure to win re-election in 1980.

Though the spy plane row bore little resemblance to the Iranian hostage crisis, President Bush would not have wanted to hear the word "hostage" so soon into his time in office. Yellow ribbons did make a new appearance though.

Professor Reich said he found it difficult to fathom what the Chinese hoped to gain from this confrontation.

"In essence the crew are hostages. We shouldn't be concerned about the word being used. When they start to be called 'prisoners', then it's time to get really worried."

Key stories:


Spy plane row



See also:

31 Jul 98 | Middle East
Links to more Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Asia-Pacific stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |