At 24, Amanda Lindhout decided to quit her job as a cocktail waitress in Calgary and become a foreign correspondent. She had no journalism experience, no contacts and no background in history or geopolitics – she was a high-school graduate – but she didn’t let that hold her back. She bought plane tickets to Kabul and Baghdad, but almost nobody was interested in her work. She decided that to make her name, she needed a breakthrough – something really big, like the hurricane in Galveston that had made Dan Rather famous.
So she went to Mogadishu, one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. It was so risky that many other journalists and aid workers had already gotten the hell out. Four days after she arrived in August, 2008, she and her photographer, an ex-boyfriend, were promptly kidnapped by a teenaged Somali gang.
Ms. Lindhout is now a media sensation. Her book, a harrowing account of her 15 months in captivity, was excerpted in The New York Times magazine. (It was actually written by Sara Corbett, a contributor to the magazine.) She has been written up in all the major media, including Vogue and Elle. She is highly photogenic. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge.
Please don’t get me wrong. Ms. Lindhout’s travails – she endured gang rape, starvation and disease – were undeniably dreadful. Not for a moment did she deserve any of it. And yet, my sympathy is tempered by the fact that narcissistic, recklessly naive people like Ms. Lindhout are often their own worst enemies. They bring trouble not only on themselves, but on their families, their helpers and fixers and the governments that get involved in rescuing them.
The price of freedom for Ms. Lindhout and Nigel Brennan, the Australian photographer, was about $1.2-million. Her father mortgaged his house to raise part of the money. (The ransom effort was unusually complicated because it involved two governments, two families and a private negotiator; they seldom saw eye to eye.) The RCMP set up an office in Alberta to advise her family, and dozens of people were seconded to the Canadian high commission in Nairobi to work on her release.
Experienced hands are also kidnapped and killed, of course. The CBC’s Mellissa Fung (kidnapped in Afghanistan) and diplomat Robert Fowler (kidnapped in Niger) were two notable examples. But foolish amateurs do not help. When four Christian Peacemakers from Canada were abducted in Iraq in 2005, it took a multinational rescue force to free them. Only three survived – the fourth had already been killed by his captors. The others had to be prompted to thank their rescuers.
Ms. Lindhout’s book has received a sympathetic hearing from many journalists, who point out that that we should honour the brave souls who put their lives on the front lines to bring important stories to the world. Yes, we should. But how can they do that if they don’t know what they’re talking about?
Amanda Lindhout’s story, in fact, has little to do with journalism. It belongs in the sturdy genre of captivity narratives – more or less factual accounts of real people who fall into the hands of barbarians and live to tell the tale. These stories (which used to feature Barbary pirates, or North American Indians) have enthralled readers for centuries. They are even more enthralling when the captive happens to be young and and female.
Ms. Lindhout’s book will bring her fame and fortune (and probably a movie deal), which, after all, is what she wanted. It’s too bad that she had to pay such a terrible price to get it.