When to Be Nice and When to Lie to Your Captor

Question: Is it important to humanize yourself to your kidnappers?

Stanley Alpert: I think that to survive a hostage situation, it’s very important that you humanize yourself.  That your captors view you not merely as a target, not merely as some stray lawyer with too much money, in their view, that they picked up off the street.  Of course, I was an assistant U.S. attorney at the time.  I wasn’t making as much money as they thought.  But rather to view you as a person that was a human being, which is a strong incentive for them to keep you alive.  

So I tried to do that. Right away when I was in the car with them, they asked me whether my watch was gold.  And on instinct I said, you know, “I don’t know particularly, but my father gave it to me for graduating from law school.”  I wanted them to realize that I’m a human being with a father.  Turns out that actually backfired on me because they later threatened to kill him.  Maybe I planted that idea in their heads.  But I had a real feeling that they ought to know that.  

I also tried the good-guy-lawyer thing.  You know, I’m an environmental lawyer, who at the time was an environmental prosecutor.  I ran in our district and I felt like, if I told them I was a good guy lawyer: I’m doing good things.  I’m trying to help save the planet, I’m try—I mean, I didn’t use those words, but those ideas that they might be less likely to kill me and actually that backfired too.  Because one of the toughest thugs, who went by the name of Sen said that was ridiculous.  Why would I be suing ExxonMobil to get money out of them that goes to the Federal government when that money belongs here in our community, which was his point of view.  So that too didn’t work, but it was another effort to try to humanize myself.  
Now, another way to do it was to be very nice and kind no matter how they talked to me.  Another way to do it was sort of midway through this, they decided to toy with me and get a little free legal advice.  So they asked me actually some very serious legal questions.  One of them was about how one of the guys had been, what he claimed, falsely arrested and he wanted to know if he could bring a lawsuit even though he had given a false name to the police.  Now you can imagine a Federal prosecutor is not in a position to assist somebody who has given a false name to the police.  But I was struggling for my life.  So I asked a lot of questions, found out the facts and then I gave him a legal theory by which he might be able to win.  I said, “Well,” you know, “You could say the reason you gave the false name was that you felt frightened by the police themselves because they had falsely arrested you.”  Now I give you this, this is definitely not one of my prouder moments.  And as a Federal prosecutor, I would never try to manipulate something in that way, but here I was just trying to hold onto my life.  

By giving them positive legal advice, a positive theory that they could feel good about, that was a bonding experience.  And you need to humanize yourself and bond with your captors in order to enhance your chance of surviving.

Question:
Should you ever try to deceive your captors?

Stanley Alpert: So for the most part, you’re in the experience, I was as kind and friendly and responsive.  I tried to be a good listener.  You know, one guy was complaining about how his father wasn’t nice to his... you know, his father wasn’t nice to his mother.  I tried to be very decent and kind.  And I was honest most of the time. But in the art of survival, which in my case was also the art of war, there are times when it’s critical that you use a weapon that all fighters use, which is to deceive the enemy.  

So toward the very end, right before they were planning to take me back, or said they were planning to take me back, the leader of the gang turns to me and says: “Stanley, if you had to chance to put me away for life, would you do it?”  So what do you say?  If you say yes, you’re dead.  If you say no, you’re dead.  I mean how stupid are they?  So, I needed to give an answer that was a little more nuanced and obviously I couldn’t tell the truth.  Because the fact is, putting my own experience aside, I couldn’t possibly let them do this to any other human being again.  I couldn’t live with that on my conscience if I didn’t try to get them.  So I thought about it and I said, “Look, you already told me you know where I live.  You know where my father lives.  I don’t know who you are; I don’t know where we are.  You haven’t hurt me so far, and you say you’re gonna release me unharmed.  I don’t think this has to go any further.”  And in giving that answer I was deceiving my enemy, which was critical in that moment.  I couldn’t tell the straight truth, yeah, I’m a Federal prosecutor, of course as soon as I get out of her I’m gonna get the FBI on your ass and get you locked up.  I couldn’t do that.  So there are times when you have to deceive the enemy and that’s what I did.

Recorded August 9, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller

Humanizing yourself and creating a bond with your captor enhances your chances of survival, but sometimes you will also need to be deceptive.

7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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