4 Aspects of Hostage Situations Movies Didn't Prepare Me For
Thanks to pop culture, we feel we have a pretty firm grip on hostage negotiation procedure. Hell, we could do it ourselves: You just walk into a shiny skyscraper with a pistol taped to your back, point behind the guy and yell "Look over there!" then put a bullet between his eyes at 100 yards without harming the pretty blonde girl he's using as a human shield. Then we spoke to Gary Noesner, a 30-year veteran of crisis negotiation who was present for the first half of the Waco standoff of 1993. We learned that the movies had wildly misinformed us about the reality of hostage negotiation, and that we had wildly misinformed ourselves about our firearm skills and general competence under pressure.
Hostage Negotiation Is Like Picking Up a Date
In The Negotiator, Samuel L. Jackson's character is so hard to deal with precisely because he's a negotiator himself and knows all their "tricks." In real life, there are no tricks, and in fact hostage negotiation is less "careful game of psychological chess" and more "really awkward first date."
Only instead of avoiding the awkward-kiss lean, you're trying to avoid having to kill them.
As Noesner once explained to an audience of university students: "Guys, if you're truly interested in a young lady in here, listen to them ... Listen to them talk about their likes and interests, and ask good follow-up questions to show that you are interested and paying close attention to what they have to say."
Noesner uses that same approach for high-stakes negotiations. The criminals don't usually plan on taking hostages, after all -- they're just panicking at a situation that has escalated beyond their control. It's not about exploiting some psychological loophole mis-wired into the human brain so much as it is listening to somebody like they're a human being. After every successful negotiation, Noesner would ask perpetrators what it was he said that made them agree to surrender -- and the answer was always "I don't remember what you said, but I liked how you said it."
"Yeah, I can do it like Morgan Freeman."
Another example: Noesner was once negotiating with a man who had holed up inside his house and threatened to kill himself if anyone came in. They had a line of communication, but no one could figure out how to get a real conversation going until one negotiator, who was interviewing the man's sister, discovered that he really, really loved his dog. Just asking the guy about Sgt. McFlufferbottom (dog's real name omitted for anonymity) opened up a line of conversation and eventually got the man out of the house alive.
Who's a good boy? Sgt. McFlufferbottom is a damn good boy.
So much better than that Son of Sam dog.
Hostage Negotiators Don't Work Alone
Every movie portrays them the same way -- the hostage negotiator is a solitary creature. Like a nonviolent Mad Max. He works alone. He heads into that building unaccompanied, cut off from the outside world, and only his cunning brain can get him, and everybody else, out of the situation alive.
If things get too hairy, his sick dance moves totally serve the criminals.
That's not how it plays out in reality. You're not trying to outwit the criminal, you're trying to help him make the decision that's best for everybody involved. Why wouldn't you want the largest team possible at your back, gathering intel?
When Noesner was lead negotiator at the Waco standoff, he had over a dozen people on his team working 12-hour shifts, digging up every bit of information he could -- which is why they were able to negotiate the release of 35 individuals, including 19 children, before that whole situation turned into, well, Waco.
And yes, we are absolutely going to focus on the 19 children who went free instead of literally everything else about those tragic events, because we are psychologically fragile beings and were once traumatized by an episode of the Care Bears.
Some shit we just cannot handle.
Terrorists Are Not One-Dimensional Movie Villains
So OK, most criminals aren't hardened badasses -- but what about the rare case when you end up negotiating with a full-fledged terrorist? Those guys are all the same, right? Sure, the facial hair varies, but that's just frosting on the evil cake. That's a dangerous assumption.
"I flew down to Peru in 1996 when the MRTA terrorists took over the Japanese ambassador's residence," Noesner told us. "President Alberto Fujimori simply refused to negotiate with them because they were 'filthy terrorists and we're not going to talk to them.'"
"Speak loudly, and carry a big FU" isn't the best negotiating strategy.
Everyone knew exactly how they were going to act, because the folks in charge were going by a single "terrorist profile." When that profile turned out to be wrong, people ended up dying. Other times you'll be up against ordinary criminals who are pretending to be terrorists in order to get law enforcement to strategize with their terrorist playbook, since that makes them more predictable. And yes, this is exactly what Hans Gruber did in Die Hard.
"We have seen many instances of kidnappings in South America, particularly in Colombia, where criminal groups have pretended to be terrorists in order to extract a higher ransom payment," says Noesner. "Too often this bogus declaration leads law enforcement and governments to deal with them less effectively because they believe they are terrorists, when their only real motivation is money rather than politics."
"And lo, the Lord did declareth that we shall be paid in unmarked bills and small denominations."
It is also possible to overestimate a terrorist. In the movies, they're all devoted, motivated, and well-equipped enemies who can only be stopped by strapping them to a missile and shooting them into their own helicopter. But in real life, many terrorists are pawns in a game they can only barely comprehend, like Mongo from Blazing Saddles. In 1985, after Palestinian terrorists took over the Achille Lauro cruise ship and were captured, Noesner interrogated them to try to figure out what their political motivations were. He discovered that they seemed to know less about their own agenda than he did.
"We want to get those guys out of Gaza, the ... Buddhists, I think."
"Being flexible and creative in dealing with terrorists is the key," Noesner says. "If you assume that they're that evil and won't back down or compromise, then you are less likely to open up a negotiation process in an attempt to influence their behavior, which has proven to be successful more often than people believe."
Wait, what is this hippie crap? Let's just give all the terrorists flowers, right? Let's take violence entirely off the table and hope that starlight and wishes can stop them, just like that one scarring Care Bears episode. Actually, turns out the nonviolent approach might very well be the best ...
Nonviolence Is the Single Best Way to Fight Crime
Talk all you want, every second a criminal hasn't surrendered is another second where he might lose his cool and shoot a cop, or a hostage, or an innocent passerby. The cleanest option is a well-placed sniper bullet, right?
Negotiating with criminals sports a success rate of 90 percent -- higher than any other form of fighting crime.
Even Iron Man suits. Sorry.
"When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail," Noesner says. "Whenever I hear a story about an officer who lost his life in the line of duty, I hear an explanation like 'people were barricaded and we decided to go in.' When I ask why they decided to go in, I almost never get a satisfying answer. When people with guns go up against other people with guns, it almost always leads to bad things."
While Cracked has never had trouble admitting that guns can be an awesome way to solve problems, those solutions rarely end up keeping people alive. Noesner says that he has no qualms about using violence when necessary -- because there are times when it absolutely is -- but in the vast majority of cases, you can talk your way out of a problem if you have an expert available. We're not trying to side with the criminals here. We're just saying that if your goal is to get everybody out with the normal amount of holes in their bodies, maybe take the negotiator off the bench a few minutes before you send in the bitchin' street tanks.
But on the other hand, tanks.
Related Reading: Want to learn more about jobs that you're unfamiliar with? Ever had to hide a corpse? You might if you become a doctor in the third-world. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, your textbooks are mostly written by people who could give two shits. And all you risk takers out there? You're woefully unqualified to be stunt men and women? Have a story to share with Cracked? Email us here.
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