Friday, January 19, 2007

Leave Shawn Hornbeck alone, please

Today's post is a little off the regular subject of this blog and has nothing to do with my usual topic of Christianity, homosexuality and the Bible. But I've decided to go ahead anyhow and say what's been on my mind this past week.

The public reaction to the kidnapping and safe return of fifteen year-old Shawn Hornbeck, in what is being called "the Missouri Miracle," has been bothering me. Nobody seems to understand why Hornbeck didn’t try to escape during his four year stay with his alleged abductor, Michael Devlin, even though he had access to the Internet and a cell phone while Devlin was gone at work. The implication that is maybe he didn't want to escape. It has been reported that while living with Devlin, he was even out late biking one night and was picked up and driven home by a police officer, yet he never said a word to the officer about his identity or situation.

Bill O’Reilly has even suggested that “there was an element here that this kid liked about this circumstances . . . The situation here for this kid looks to me to be a lot more fun than what he had under his old parents. He didn't have to go to school. He could run around and do whatever he wanted.”

Yesterday, Hornbeck told Oprah Winfrey off-camera that he was “terrified” of trying to contact his parents or seek help. He also told police officers that Devlin threatened to kill him and his entire family. He spent most of his time sleeping and playing video games--and praying he would be found.

The few words Shawn Hornbeck has spoken on the matter tell me everything I need to know. His behavior makes perfect sense to me.

It is not that hard for authority figures to control someone mentally and emotionally through fear. Abusive husbands do it to their wives. Abusive churches do it to their congregation members. Abusive bosses do it to their employees.

Now imagine being Shawn Hornbeck in his situation. You are abducted at gunpoint when you are eleven years old by a 300 pound stranger who threatens to kill you and your family if you should try to escape. He is an adult, he is bigger and stronger than you, and he possesses a gun. He’s the one who decides whether you eat or drink anything on any given day. He decides whether you get to watch television or play video games as opposed to say, being locked in a closet or chained to a bedpost all day. He decides whether he’s going to do his thing with you or leave you alone on any given night. He is the person that you, as an eleven year-old kid, have to negotiate with if you want to stay alive.

I can imagine how the rules were set up for Shawn Hornbeck by his abductor: Be a good kid and maybe I’ll get you a burger, let you watch a little TV, allow you some time to yourself in your room. Being a good kid means you play by the rules and don’t try to escape. Don’t try to talk to anyone or catch anyone’s eye, especially an adult or police officer. Give them the line about how you live with your dad, are homeschooled, are having a good time. Because if you don’t your family is dead.

Is it stupid for a kid to believe his abductor is capable of killing his entire family? Suppose the guy were to come home some days and say things like, “I saw your mom shopping at Target today.” Or suppose he tells you he stalked your sister to her school and describes to you what she was wearing. Do you think an eleven year-old kid, or even a fifteen year-old kid, wouldn’t get in line under threats like that? Michael Devlin would only have to have driven an hour to reach Shawn Hornbeck's home. If he did make such threats, they would have sounded real.

And if you were that kid, you can be sure that your abductor would have asked you questions if he saw you talking to anyone. He’d accuse you, threaten you, make you beg and plead and do your damnedest to convince him that you were good, you didn’t give the game away, you played by the rules, so that maybe he won’t beat you or starve you or rape you tonight. You learn that the only way you can negotiate with this bastard, win his trust and earn the small kindnesses you need from him to survive this ordeal, is to make sure that you have absolute integrity in the way you play by the rules. So when the police officer picks you up from biking and brings you back, you are able to hold your own when you are questioned and threatened and accused all night long about whether you said anything. You can insist, literally on your mother’s grave, that you did not give anything away. And you hope and pray that the officer doesn’t drop by the next day and make it look like you lied, because maybe then the guy will go off and make good on that promise about what he’d do to your family.

A person can feel pretty helpless and locked in after four years of living in that kind of terror. You wind up sleeping all day and playing video games, just to pass the time and get through each day. Every privilege you have is hard-earned, through years of making progress toward earning your captor's trust. Going out with friends or going to a sleepover is your reward, and these things make life bearable, so you sure as hell aren't going to jeopardize that because somebody joked about you looking like that missing kid Shawn Hornbeck. You watch people carefully now, and you can tell that they don't get it. If anything, jokes like that are dangerous and it's better to get people to shut up so that they don't end up getting you or someone you care about killed.

Well, I hope you get the picture. It really isn't that hard to understand why Shawn Hornbeck behaved as he did while in that situation. If you think about it, it happens on a smaller scale all the time to adults. People who won’t leave a bad situation--a marriage, a church, a job--but will in fact cover up for it because they are afraid of what might happen if they don’t. It’s really no different at all.

Let’s have a little more understanding, and leave the kid alone.

Update: Michael Reagan provides sane commentary, bravely sharing his own personal experience here.