Terry Waite CBE inspires audiences to live life to the full
Sarah Gordon recounts the Survival in Solitude lecture, by Terry Waite.
Despite having experienced physical and psychological torment that few of us can imagine, Terry Waite recounted his story with a warmth and gentle wit, revealing his humanity and resilience. At the beginning of the evening, he recalled the moment when he was reunited with his wife. She told him that she had been praying for him for five years.
“That’s very good of you,” he said. “Yes,” she replied, “but you came back!”
Nevertheless, Waite did not shy away from discussing the most serious threats to global peace and stability. These are troubled times, to the extent that he believes we are living through a third World War. While the First and Second World Wars of the last century were fought with conventional armies, in World War Three an act of terrorism can happen anywhere at any time. Hostages have always been taken in wars and some have always been murdered, but now this is more visible as acts of violence can be graphically displayed to millions over the internet.
At the moment there are between 2,000 and 3,000 hostages in the world, which is deliberately not publicised to avoid jeopardising negotiations. After his release Waite saw a need for organised support for the families of those taken, so helped to set up Hostage UK, which also provides specialist training for negotiators, such as the Police, the Foreign Office and the Red Cross. At one of the organisation’s meetings a former hostage spoke about his experiences. After facing torture, death threats and terrible conditions, he told his captors’ leader that he was depressed. He explained that he was a family man and missed his children. The leader said he was a family man, too. He took out his mobile phone and showed the hostage a photograph of a boy aged about twelve, his son. He then showed the hostage a video in which the boy started to walk away from the camera. There was a huge explosion. The boy, wearing a suicide vest, had blown himself up for the terrorist organisation’s cause. His father was proud of what he had done. What can we deduce from this?
“What you believe has vital effects on the way you behave.” This then raises the question, how does one engage in negotiations with such people? “The answer is that the extreme fanatic is not the person you negotiate with. But there are always people in a terrorist organisation you can talk to.”
These situations are not helped by wars.
“I am not a pacifist,” Waite told us. “I would like to be.”
However, he believes that there are situations, after every option has been tried, when limited force can be used as a last resort. He does not believe that every option has been tried in recent conflicts, while politicians have demonstrated that they have little understanding of the Middle East. Waite remembers warning during the Iraq war that if you remove a dictator who is holding people together by force, then you risk unleashing other forces you cannot control. He believes that we need to undertake a more detailed examination of why people are behaving as they are, and that this is not simplistic. In the Middle East, Shia and Sunni groups were pulled together in a mix that is difficult to manage. It may seem as if the only way of containing this would be a benevolent dictator, but Waite believes that such a person cannot exist, agreeing with Lord Acton’s assertion that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Waite emphasised that he does not believe that the current situation is the West’s fault,
“but the West has a responsibility and it has not always exercised it wisely.”
Waite then told a personal story to illustrate the psychology of terrorist organisations. When he was held captive the food, which had never been good, became particularly bad. The head of the hostage group looked into this and discovered that the guard had been keeping half the money given to him to buy the prisoners’ food. The guard was taken outside and shot. The logic behind this brutal reaction was that if the guard was prepared to keep the organisation’s funds he valued money above its aims and was therefore open to bribery. This story reveals the extent to which a young person’s life is controlled by a terrorist organisation once they are a member. So why do they join? Waite explained that many young people in places like Lebanon are at the ‘bottom of the pile’ in all senses – economically, educationally and politically. They are offered an identity and a better future by a charismatic leader, and then there is no way out. Therefore, providing alternative opportunities for young people to free themselves from poverty is a vital aspect of combating terrorism.
Waite’s philosophy for negotiating with hostage takers was controversial and many people believed that it would be impossible. In Uganda, he negotiated with Idi Amin with some success, although Waite admits that he was working in a dangerous and chaotic environment, as
“when law and order breaks down all hell breaks loose”.
He adopted a strategy that many dismissed as idealistic. He would meet hostage takers face-to-face and try to gain their trust, in order to negotiate the release of hostages without payment or unfair exchange. This did work on many occasions, but involved great risks. Waite bore the brunt of this risk himself when he was taken captive in Beirut. Trust between him and the captors was broken, and the price he paid was being kept in an underground cell for almost five years.
“It was a difficult experience, but if you’re not prepared to face such risks you should not enter that territory.”
He was suspected of being an agent of US intelligence and was captured through a trick. The hostage takers said that one of the hostages was ill and about to die. Waite asked them if he would also be taken, and they promised he would not. He was given 24 hours to make up his mind, and although he believed the risk was extreme he felt he had to go. If the man died he would have to live with his conscience for the rest of his life. At this point in the lecture, Waite made reference to The Perse’s motto:
“Qui facit per alium facit per se”, “he who does things for others does them for himself”, as he believes that self-interest and helping others are intrinsically linked. “Very few people are full of altruism. We rarely do anything for others without doing something for ourselves.”
For the first year of his incarceration Waite faced relentless interrogation, but could not provide any answers for the simple reason that he did not know the answers. The soles of his feet were whipped until he could no longer stand, although in many ways the greatest torture he faced was his isolation. He had no fresh air or sight of the sky throughout his imprisonment, and no access to books or papers for three-and-a-half years. His body deteriorated and his beard grew long and white. He felt he was aging before his time. He wondered if he would also deteriorate mentally and spiritually, but realised that he still had his life and he had to live that life as fully as he could.
“I said to myself that I had been on many physical journeys and had visited most countries in the world. Now I had the opportunity to go on a journey in my mind.”
This was easier said than done, not least because when taking a journey into our own character we discover both sides of ourselves, the light and the dark, and by encountering this inner darkness we risk falling into depression. Waite found inner harmony through language. He read us a poem he wrote about Lake Victoria, which demonstrated how he tried to make pictures in his mind and capture them concisely through language. During his captivity he was grateful for the role of the Anglican Church in his upbringing, as without realising it at the time, he had memorised the poetry of the Book of Common Prayer as a chorister. He found particular comfort in the Third Collect from the Order of Evening Prayer, “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night;”
“I found comfort in the meaning, because I was in darkness and was afraid, but also in the rhythm and sound of the words.”
The psychological torments of Waite imprisonment went even further than this endless isolation.
“I had a mock execution. I was told I had five hours to live. A gun was put to my head, but then it was dropped and a voice said ‘another time’. I was afraid, not so much of death – that comes to us all – but that it would hurt.”
They told him he could say a prayer, so he said the Lord’s Prayer in what he thought were his final moments. After this, which was a year into his imprisonment, his captors said that they believed he was a genuine humanitarian, not a spy, and he would soon be free to go. He was moved to good accommodation, but then something went wrong and he went back into prison. He is not sure what happened to stall the process of freeing him, but wonders if it could have been the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which meant that the group would not give any concessions to the West.
Waite spoke about his religious beliefs, although he “doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve”. He sees God as the Supreme Mystery, and a journey of faith as similar to a scientific discovery in which one tries to understand more and more. He highlighted the danger of any religion claiming to have the absolute truth –
“that’s the end of thinking.” Instead, for him religion is about “growing closer to the mystery that is both within us and beyond us.”
The different religions can be seen as ‘handrails’ that guide us towards this mystery, or as putting a human face on the unknowable. His poem ‘The Kingdom’ explores how we might work towards this in our own lives:
“Learn to love. Let compassion guide your actions.” He believes that ordinary people can do a great deal to heal conflict. “If only people who have had disputes would agree to put the past in the past and to build a better future.”
Waite has done this in his own life and went back to Lebanon to the headquarters of the people who captured him.
“They were somewhat surprised to see me.” He was determined to take something creative from this experience and asked the leader to help refugees on the Syrian border by supplying them with heating oil. “As far as I know, he did it.” This may seem like a small gesture, “but if 10,000 people in places like the occupied territories did this, we’d have a settlement”.
Waite believes that suffering does not need to be destructive, and since his release has tried to turn his ordeal into something creative. He had always been sympathetic towards people on the margins of life, but having been alone, vulnerable and afraid himself, he now he feels truly empathetic towards them, feeling their suffering as his own. This motivated him to help found the homelessness charity Emmaus in order to give people who are ‘on the edge of life’ a second chance.
It was a privilege to hear Terry Waite’s remarkable story of survival, both during his incarceration and after his release, which demonstrates the immense power of connecting with others, seeing the good in them and creating positive outcomes against all the odds.