Pathological Resistance

Gaddafi Diehards Suffering from Stockholm Syndrome

“Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious”  Oscar Wilde

The cheering throngs in Tripoli have dispersed, their celebrations marred by uncertainty, sniper-fire and occasional mortar-rounds. Though Gaddafi remains at large, militarily his cause is obviously lost. He has few weapons, no supplies and his few remaining soldiers lack any sort of central command structure to coordinate their actions.

Historically, when a country is clearly losing a war its people tend to topple the existing regime and broker a peace. Napoleon’s generals mutinied when France was invaded. Kaizer Wilhem and Tzar Nicholas II lost their thrones with the enemy still far from their gates. Argentina’s military junta got pushed out after their defeat in the Falklands war. Why then in Gaddafi’s case do some of his loyalists seem bent on fighting to the bitter end?

If we look at the three rational reasons for resistance, greed, tribal loyalty and fear, they seem increasingly insufficient. Rather, like Hitler before him, after holding his country hostage for over 40 years Gaddafi is benefiting from the mother of all Stockholm syndromes.

Lets look first at some of the rational grounds for resistance. Consider economic interest. While in power, Gaddafi used Libya’s oil wealth to reward those loyal to him, and they now stand to lose everything. Yet greed as motivation only works while the money still flows. As interviews of former mercenaries demonstrate, once the cash ran low and the situation seemed doomed, hired soldiers and members of the inner circle began rationally looking to escape.

Alternatively, the diehards may find themselves motivated by tribal allegiance. Libya’s lack of formal institutions has made tribal networks paramount. In addition to his own tribe, the Gaddafi’s, the Magariha and Warhalla tribe have traditionally supported the regime, and may not see too kindly a loss of their privileges. But despite the Brother Leader’s call for tribes to converge on Tripoli, they haven’t budged.  In fact, tribal elders have remained remarkably ambiguous, allowing youths to participate in the rebellion. Even members of his own small tribe have abandoned him.

Finally, lets consider the fear factor. Many if not all of the remaining soldiers might fear reprisals from the rebels for crimes real or imaginary committed in Gaddafi’s name. With six months of enmity those fears aren’t entirely misplaced, but the provisional government in Benghazi and its international backers have repeatedly pledged to abide by the laws of war. On it ground, it seems that those who surrender and make it to hospitals are receiving decent treatment; medical care, a posted guard to ensure their safety and allowed to call their families.

At this point, these rational reasons for resisting sound increasingly hollow. But as any honest economist will admit to you, sometime people don’t behave rationally, which is why we turn to psychology.

When threatened with harm, victims of abuse sometimes develop a feeling of empathy towards the perpetrator, a phenomenon known as Stockholm syndrome. According to the FBI, 27% of people kidnapped or taken hostage experience such a change of heart, which can even lead to victims defending their abuser. They feel gratitude and even love towards one who would harm or kill them for having refrained from doing so.

It is easy to see how such sentiments might have developed among a small but significant portion of Libyans, particularly those subject to the brunt of his power. Amongst soldiers and administrators, a handful of true believers would suffice to motivate the others, and even as things fall apart, they carry on the fight.

Time for a Sequel?

An easy but imperfect parallel to the current situation is the downfall of Nazi Germany. Months after all hope was lost, terror and propaganda kept the regime fighting. Then Hitler shot himself and almost overnight all resistance collapsed. The rational reasons for fighting didn’t go away with the death of one man, but the psychological reasons did.

Though Gaddafi is not and has never been as brutal or totalitarian, he has had much more time to establish a grip on Libyans minds. Unfortunately, it seems nothing short of removing the locus of their obsession will cure these desperate fighters of their folly.

Erwin Knippenberg

The Barefoot Economist


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