I was lucky enough to be there, notebook in hand. It was incongruous—Anderson applauding the formalities of the convention before himself receiving a standing ovation as he stood up to speak about his 2,454 days as a hostage. Bearded militants had grabbed him early the morning of March 16, 1985, in Beirut, a Saturday. They’d circled his tennis court where he’d been playing with an Associated Press colleague (Anderson was the AP’s bureau chief in Beirut at the time), followed him when he was dropping off his colleague, then grabbed him, leaving the colleague behind.
A Decade of Hostages
More than a dozen Americans were taken hostage, along with scores of others, mostly westerners, between 1982 and 1991, by Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad militants, or by more obscure organizations bargaining for prisoners or attention or sheer turf in Lebanon’s vast web of barbaric snarls. Anderson would end up being the longest-held of them all—the longest-held American hostage in the Middle East’s history. And there he was before newspaper publishers celebrating his achievements the only way they knew how (by handing him plaque after plaque) and listening to his stories of solitude, terror, resilience and a complete absence of vengefulness toward his captors.
“I’m a bit older, a good bit older, as you can tell,” Anderson said. He was 37 when he was taken hostage, 44 when he was released. His hair was not as thick as it was before his captivity, nor was he overweight, as he had been on that tennis court that March morning in Beirut (and would be again some years later), though he spoke in halting sentences and wore his familiar thick glasses.
A Better America?
“I’ve found it to be very encouraging to be back because I think this country now is a better place than it was seven years ago,” Anderson said of the United States.
It was, of course, 1992, Anderson, who had quit the Associated Press, was writing the memoir of his captivity that would become Den of Lions, and was mulling a political run of his own, had endorsed Bill Clinton for president and saw promise in the years ahead, even in American policy toward the Middle East. The first George Bush was on his way out, the second Bush, while no longer a drunk, was not yet governor of Texas, or in anyone’s calculations of neo-Bushism, and the first attack on the World Trade Center was about a year away. The country’s future did look promising (and the 1990s proved it). But not so its electoral politics, according to Anderson.
“I find it discouraging to see our leaders conducting a campaign that consists mostly of ‘The other guy is worse than I am’ instead of ‘This is what I want to do for you, this is where I’m going to take this country,’ and its discouraging."
"I’m Not an Animal"
He spent long periods of captivity blindfolded and chained by the wrists and ankles to a bed, suffering the cruel whims of his captors, who’d bounce on him, poke him in the ribs or the ears with the barrel of their guns, threaten him, beat him. Anderson finally told the guards, “You can’t do this to me. I’m not an animal.” Oddly, they relented and asked him what he wanted. He asked for a Bible, and was handed a “brand new, revised, standard American Bible,” which he read every day, and would end up reading from cover to cover several times. His chains were loosened, literally and metaphorically. The captors’ strange conversion recalls a similar one involving Terry Waite, the British Anglican who went to Lebanon seeking hostages’ release and ended up a captive with Anderson and others. Waite was ravenous for books but was given only cheap dime novels until he got angry and drew, on a piece of paper, the image of a penguin—for Penguin paperbacks. He handed the image to his captors, who grasped the meaning rapidly enough: they eventually carted in a heavy TV box of Penguin books that included Herodotus, The Brothers Karamazov, a mess of crime novels.
Evolution of Captivity
Things changed over the years in Anderson’s various cells (he was moved several times). There was utter solutide at first, followed by sharing a cell with other hostages. Captors then allowed radios in. In the final year they delivered copies of Time, Newsweek, Businessweek, The Economist, “and God knows why, Fortune magazine.”
Anderson never believed that his captors would kill him. He lived his ordeal; hour by hour, what he called a mentality of “doing time.”
”Return to the Lion’s Den”
In 1996, Anderson returned to Lebanon, with a CNN crew in tow. “Somehow, this trip is part of our healing,” he said. “People call me a victim of Lebanon, say I lost seven years of my life. I didn't lose them—I lived them.”
As CNN relates it, Anderson “sat face-to-face with the organization blamed for his kidnapping -- Hezbollah, the ‘Party of God.’
Anderson asked Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary-general, what he thought of hostage-taking. The former hostage was confronted with polite indifference.
"I'm not saying whether their methods were good or not, right or wrong," Nasrullah said. "These actions were short-term, with short-term objectives, and I hope that they will not happen again."
"Can you say, Sayeed, flatly, that this was wrong or a mistake?" Anderson asked.
"I can't make such an absolute judgment," Nasrullah replied.
Anderson won a multimillion dollar judgment, paid out of frozen Iranian funds, in compensation for his captivity. He used the money to start charitable organizations such as the Vietnam Children's Fund, which has built some 40 schools in Vietnam, attended by 20,000 students, and the Father Lawrence Jenco Foundation, named for a priest who was a hostage with Anderson (Jenco died in 1996). Anderson is semi-retired and lives in Athens, Ohio, where he’s part owner of a blues bar. He still lectures, teaches and writes poetry.