At Your Own Risk

Time Frame: 1985

An Iowa State University graduate taken hostage by the Islamic Jihad in Beirut, Lebanon, and held for six and a half years is featured. Originally aired in 2003.
Living in Iowa
IPTV, 2007

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Morgan: The face of terrorism has now shown itself to all Americans. But nearly two decades ago ISU graduate Thomas Sutherland saw it for himself when he was captured in Beirut, Lebanon, and held hostage in deplorable conditions for 2,354 days. He sat down with us recently and shared his thoughts about surviving that ordeal.

Being sideswiped and forced off the road by men with guns sounds like a scene from an action movie, but the story that Tom Sutherland is sharing with this group of high school students is far from fiction. It happened to him on June 9th of 1985 when he was abducted in Beirut, Lebanon and held captive for six and a half years.

Sutherland: We were chained to the wall for most of the time, probably out of those 2,354 days I was chained to the wall for just under 2,000 days. They fed us pita bread and processed cheese with terrible tea every morning and every evening and every noon. It was rice and beans and rice and beans and rice and beans. And I like Iowa pork chops, but there wasn’t much hope of getting Iowa pork chops from fundamentalist Muslims. They gave us one trip to the bathroom every day. We had a bottle to urinate in. And we would go the toilet, empty that urine bottle, defecate, brush your teeth, wash your face. And then they would be rapping on the door saying, “Jella, Jella, Jella, let’s get out of there.” So, it wasn’t terribly much fun I’d have to say. But we made it.

You kept feeling any day you could be released. And as it got to be longer, it got worse. When we were there about… it was about I think the 16th of October in 1986, Dave Jacobsen and Terry Anderson and I were in the cell. And Terry suddenly—it was quiet—and all of a sudden Terry suddenly announced, “Well, guys, it’s all downhill from here.” Dave Jacobsen said “How do you figure that, Terry?” Terry said “Well, this is the eighteenth month of my kidnapping. And there is no way they’re going to keep us for three years. So it’s all downhill from here.”

By golly, sure enough in November, next month, Jacobsen did go home. But then Terry and I were in there for a second year. And then it became three years. And I said, “Hey, Terry! Remember that downhill stuff? You reckon it’s all downhill?” “Shut up!” he said, “I don’t want to hear anything about that!”

Initially they would say to us, “America bad, America very bad.” And I would say, “Oh no, man, America is a great place. You just come to Fort Collins, Colorado or Batavia, New York and you’ll find out America is a wonderful…” “No, no, no, America very bad.” They had been brainwashed about that. But, interestingly, toward the end, three of them—they were three of the guards that we had, had off and on for quite a long time—they came and sat down on my mattress not together but independently over several days. And they said, “Tom, when you are free, if you are coming back to Beirut, will you help me get green card?”

So, that sounds amazing. But those young men—they thoroughly disliked the American government—but they thought American people were okay. They thought that I and Terry Anderson and the others were okay. But the government they hated. We tried to tell them, we are the government. The government is “of the people.” “No, no, no, no, no, government bad, very bad.”

On the radio, on the sixth anniversary of my kidnapping, 9th of June 1991, I heard those bells ringing there. And I was just listening to “Voice of America.” Bong, bong, bong. And the interviewer said, “I’m standing here on the campus of Iowa State University where they’re ringing the bells of the campanile 72 times for the 72nd month anniversary of Tom Sutherland’s kidnapping.”

And I just… I was moved to tears honestly. I thought, “Who would have organized that?” I thought it was perhaps the only time they had done it. But it turned out they did it every year, on the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth anniversary. And they rang those bells. Well, those bells of Iowa State are sacred to graduates of Iowa State. And so I couldn’t figure out… playing for me. My God, I was really, really touched.

The Middle East is an interesting place and I have to say that Arabs get a bad rap in the west in general. When I went there I found out that all the Arabs around there in Beirut that I was coming in contact with—and the Muslim Arabs—they were smart. They worked hard. They were productive. They wanted a good lifestyle. They wanted a nice home. They wanted an education for their children. And I thought, “Boy, that’s just like Americans, exactly the same aspirations that we have.” These guys that do bad acts, they’re not any more representative of Islam or the Middle East than Timothy McVey was representative of Christianity or the U.S. population in general.

Narrator: In 1996 Tom and his wife Jean wrote a book detailing the years he spent as a hostage, exploring the reasons he was taken hostage, and explaining the events that eventually led to his release. Currently Tom is retired from teaching but continues to speak publicly sharing his unique insight into issues concerning the Middle East.

It’s easy to imagine how Tom would be bitter and angry after six and a half years of captivity. Instead he was left with a deep appreciation of the things most of us take for granted.

Sutherland: I have a lot more patience now as a result of that whole six and a half years of being chained to the wall. I appreciate the simple things in life like sunshine and fresh air and green grass and green leaves. I appreciate family, my extended family in Fort Collins and Denver and Ames, Iowa, and Des Moines. And I think almost more than anything else I appreciate even more than ever the kind of society that is here in America which most of us take for granted, law and order and optimism and aggressive solving of problems.


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