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Hostages in the United States


The U.S. Constitution considers hostage-taking a criminal offense and it is punishable by terms of incarceration or even a life sentence. The two hostage cases that occurred in the United States late last year are indicative of the criminal aspects of hostage-taking. In the first case, a sophomore at Marinette High School held twenty-three students and a teacher hostage but the police reined in and saved his victims. In the second incident, an environmental activist held three employees of Discovery Communications at gunpoint, but just as in the first case, the police intervened and rescued the hostages. This paper, therefore, attempts to discuss the aspects of criminality that underlie these two cases.

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The 2010 incident at Marinette High School in Wisconsin

The Marinette High School hostage occurred on November 30, 2010, where a fifteen-year-old student held 23 other students hostage together with a female teacher, Valarie Burd, for more than five hours at a gunpoint. The sophomore student who executed the hostage, Samuel Hengel mortally shot himself when police got themselves into the closed classroom and ordered him to surrender. According to the Marinette Police Chief Jeff Skorik, little was known about Hengel’s motive hence they were unable to establish the genesis of the rather bizarre incident (BBC News, 2010).

The school’s principal Corry Lambie acted swiftly and rang Marinette County authorities, who in turn deployed the Green Bay Police and the Green Bay SWAT team to the scene. Negotiations were made with Miss Burd using the classroom cell phone as the link between Hengel and the rescuers. However, Hengel is said not to have made any demands and was apparently keeping his hostages at peace. He even permitted about five students to attend to the call of nature without causing more drama. Nevertheless, when the negotiating team realized that they were not making any progress and stirred by three gunshots from the classroom, the police broke into the room, found Hengel standing in front of his hostages, and ordered him to drop the handgun. Instead of cooperating with the cops, he shot himself. The twenty-four hostages were then released unharmed while Hengel was hospitalized but died a day later of his self-inflicted gunshots (BBC News, 2010).

The incident at the Discovery Communications headquarters

The incident was perpetrated by James Lee, a forty-three-year-old environmental activist who stormed the lobby room of Discovery Communications headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, and took three people hostage. According to the Montgomery County Police Department, Lee was in possession of two starter pistols and an explosive, which they believed were to be used on the hostages. The police cordoned off the building and evacuated the workers together with the children who were in the daycare center. The attempts of the police to negotiate with the gunman were rebuffed prompting the police to seek a forceful solution, which ended in Lee’s death from gunshots. The three hostages were then released safely with none of them being injured (LAT, 2010).

The attack did not come as s surprise because Lee was known nationally for his fundamentalist approach to environmental conservation issues. He had expressed his disgust with Discovery Communications for airing television series that assumedly supported environmental degradation. He claimed that the Discovery Channel should stop egging people on to reproduce more parasitic human beings because for him population growth was a real crisis. Moreover, Lee had been charged with disorderly conduct and served forty-six jail days in 2008 for staging a protest in front of the building (LAT, 2010). The report by Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger indicated that Lee entered the building on September 1, 2010, at 1 pm with two guns clad in explosives. He then took two security guards and an employee into hostage in the building’s lobby. The police made desperate attempts to negotiate with him over the phone for hours until Lee became agitated and pointed a gun at one of the hostages. At this point, the police had to use force to disarm him but in the process, he was gunned down and he perished (LAT, 2010).

Comparison of the two scenarios

There is a modicum of similarity and many differences between the two criminal hostage incidents. In the Marinette High School case, a lone gunman, Samuel Hengel walked with a gun and apparently threatened his hostages into submission including Miss Valerie Burd, his teacher. According to the police reports, after they had cooperated he did not threaten to kill them. Similarly, in the Discovery Communications case, Lee held his three hostages at gunpoint propped up with explosives, which he wore. Both gunmen used rifles to coerce their victims into doing what they demanded in order to influence the actions of the third party, the Marinette School administration (perhaps), and the Discovery Channel management respectively.

According to chapter 18 of the U.S. Constitution article 1203, hostage-taking is criminal and the perpetrator is liable for incarceration if found guilty by the court of law (Bassiouni, 2008). In both cases, therefore, Hengel and Lee would have been imprisoned had they not died in the dramatic gun battle to save their victims. Their actions were even more telling of terroristic tendencies owing to the manner in which they were armed. In fact, Lee threatened to shoot his victims while remaining adamant about the negotiation attempts that were being made. Such a threat qualifies the criminality of his actions better than Hengel’s who did not even talk to the negotiators. Hengel’s motives were difficult to discern given the unexpected reprieve that he granted to five of his victims, probably under the pretext of visiting washrooms. To this extent, therefore, Hengel can be said to have had a fleeting mental dysfunctionality that made him such an uncharacteristic terrorist.

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Lee on the other hand was notoriety in the criminal scene whose trademark was his vitriolic abhorrence to the human reproductive programs televised by the Discovery Channels. His unorthodox environmental conservation crusades had once taken him to the company’s headquarters where he was arrested and charged for disorderliness. Therefore, the ill-fated hostage-taking was the nadir of his awkward campaign to influence the Discovery Channels’ programs. Hence, his orchestrated hostage-taking was light years different from Hengel’s insofar as the intent was concerned.

The Writer’s opinion on the Incidents

The writer has obtained the above information from two reputable sources: BBC News U.S. & Canada, and from the Los Angeles Times. In the first case, the former article has explicated the scene in a rather shallow manner, paying little attention to details such as the names of the central characters: Miss Valerie Burd, the teacher held hostage together with the students, and Corry Lambie, the school’s principal who called in the police. The article casually mentions the temporary reprieve that Samuel Hengel gave to the five students without showing the link that it had with the breaching of the door by the police to release the other victims. However, as per the manner of presentation, the author endeavors to treat each side objectively and report what truly happened as attested to by other articles without unfairly victimizing/praising either side undeservedly.

It may appear that the author wanted to underscore an aspect of the incident that aroused people’s interest rather than the nitty gritty of the entire scenario. However, in order to perfectly criminalize this scenario, it is very important to include such episodes as when Hengel refused to negotiate with the police and school officials; when he was short at the wall and other objects prompting the police to break into the classroom. Additionally, the author should have included the past mental history of Hengel to ascertain his sanity, or otherwise, either to vindicate or criminalize him of the terrific action.

The second hostage incident is obtained from the online version of the Los Angeles Times where the author has given a thorough account of the scenario making bare the criminal intent of the perpetrator, James Lee. In this article, the reader finds it easy to connect the criminal history of the perpetrator and his protracted vendetta against Discovery Communications to the bizarre occurrence. The author has endeavored to concisely report the events that transpired during this incident leaving little or no information that could help to discern the criminality of Lee’s actions, and perhaps justify his death. Such comprehensive coverage of a crime scene is typical of the Los Angeles Times and therefore, it is not surprising to find such a resourceful piece of information in the article.

Classwork and the Hostage Scenarios

In order for one to identify the two incidents as laden with a criminal offense, at least on the part of the perpetrator, one must first appreciate the coursework on criminology that forms the solid base upon such a determination is made. The learning on the Constitutional provision regarding the criminalization of hostage-taking enables the learner to identify particular instances where hostage-taking may be considered a criminal offense. Indeed, the writer appreciates the aspects of the course that enables one to label an action as criminal and circumstances that qualify an action to be a criminal offense. For example, a gun-wielding individual who threatens to harm innocent individuals for personal fulfillment or otherwise is an outright criminal and both Lee and Hengel fit this category.

Another important indicator of a criminal offense is the intent of an individual before executing an action. If it is established beyond reasonable doubt that an individual has malicious intent, then s/he qualifies to be a criminal upon accomplishing an act of a criminal nature. James Lee fits in this category following his past criminal record with Discovery Communications; while Hengel’s case cannot be weighed on the same scale given his innocence and criminal-free history.


Samuel Hengel perhaps did not weigh the magnitude of his action before he executed it. His intransigence to calls from negotiators via his teacher Miss Burd made the situation tense given the large number of victims who were under his mercy. The police negotiators were forced to drop the diplomatic stance and engage him with a force so as to save the rest of the hostages. In the ensuing melee, he shot himself and perished a day later. James Lee, on the other hand was an experienced criminal who ignored negotiators and threatened to kill hi victims. He was however shot at before he could pull the trigger on his hostages. The two scenarios are treated as criminal cases following chapter 18 of the U.S. Constitution article 1230. The articles from which the information was retrieved are credible newspapers whose authors reported the incident(s) as they occurred, save for the Marinette School hostage by the BBC News online version.

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Bassiouni, C.M. (2008). International Criminal Law: Multilateral and bilateral enforcement mechanisms. New York, NY: BRILL.

BBC News US & Canada. “All Hostages released form Wisconsin high school” 2011, Web.

LAT (Los Angeles Times). “Discovery Channel hostage crisis ends with gunman’s death” 2011, Web.

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