Anatomy Of A Crisis: Hostage Negotiation (Part 1 of 2)
After suffering unspeakable torment under the strict (yet fair!) hands of Jon Schwartz for neglecting to hand in a column last month, I am before you now begging for your forgiveness. Really, I have my reasons, all of which happen to have happened in the month of May: Although I’m already married, I’m getting married (yes to the same womandon’t ask) in August, I bought a house (more time … not to mention more money invested), the 8th Annual Big Wu Family Reunion was a time thief of the first order, there were further complications of a variety I won’t describe just now. Not everything was pure stress, though: My Vikes are finally going to the Super Bowl, I got the pontoon in the water (finally), summer has finally arrived and life is simply lovely. In fact, someone just dropped off five hits of completely unsolicited acid. While turning the inside of my consciousness into a strange lysergic playground is always good on a summer day, I don’t know if I still have the grapes to "go where no man has gone before." It looks like trouble to me, and I like trouble … but there are other things, too.
I was thinking about telling you the story of when I ran for mayor of Northfield, Minnesota, but that doesn’t seem quite right, either. I think that we will have to save that one for election season. It’s usually better to keep stories relevant … and besides, why spoil the summertime with clawing and backbiting tales of politics? I’ve always felt that summer is the one thing politicians can’t ever outlaw, regulate or otherwise legislate it’s just too infectious. It nurtures our inner outlaws, loosens those tight-ass friends who seem always committed to playing it safe and provides a very comfortable climate for outdoor partying. Whether or not we ask it to, summer keeps us young and prevents us from being too responsible.
Now that’s a scary one: responsibility. Note that I said "scary," as opposed to some other, more rock-n-roll commentary … like "bullshit." Responsibility is one of those things that suffer a bad rap. Not because it inherently implies consequences (although, obviously, it does) but because it’s all too often confused with taking credit for something. There are plenty of folks who will take the credit for a deed done, but who would never take the responsibility to see something through even if it goes wrong. For example, imagine a dude that wants to get a pile of beer and throw a party. In the spirit of fun, the dude’s friend ponies up the deposit on the keg. Either way, everybody has a good time. But we all know that the minute something goes wrong, it’ll be the guy who laid the deposit down who’ll to answer for everybody’s fat and the cat that inspired the party in the first place will likely be hiding in the back room. The next day, there’ll be one guy who takes credit for a wild time and another who takes the responsibility for the mess.
However, it’s summertime, and we’re not that interested in the guy who takes responsibility; we’ll clean up the mess later. This leads inevitably to the question: What kind of mess shall we make? The possibilities are quite literally endless. Some of us will ditch out on jobs in favor of Bonnaroo, others may keep it closer to home … say, ditch out on that trusty (boring) boyfriend in favor of something a little spicier. Ahhh, which could be a fine theme to illustrate summer’s treacherous and subversive motion. But what kind of column would that be? "Cheating On Your Mate In Three E-Z Steps" may soil even my reputation.
On that self-revealing note, I confess I love finding out what makes things tick. Quite often my interest in the inner workings of a process outweighs its actual function. I know I am not alone in this: The popularity of VH-1’s Behind the Music suggests that folks are much more interested in tales of the Bee-Gee’s cocaine-fueled bisexual dirty laundry than in their music. The same goes for American Idol, in that more people tuned in to watch Kelly Clarkston compete than ever bothered to or ever will bother to buy her album.
In general, we Americans are a nosey bunch. We demand access to Tom Cruise’s personal life (Cruise, luckily for us, happily obliges) as if his choices dictate the direction of our existence. However, this kittenish behavior isn’t universal. Asking too many questions about the workings of the Columbian judicial system only reveals what it’s like to be blindfolded, shot, and buried in a shallow grave.
Despite the best efforts of our media, we the people just can’t get enough information on anything and everything. It’s this undying curiosity that invented the Internet, and it’s the destiny of the Internet to offer sites like howstuffworks.com. This site tickles me where few other web pages can. To find out how anything works, simply type a topic in the browser and it’ll dig up an answer. To be fair, it doesn’t have the answer for everything. I typed in "Democratic Party" and it simply responded that it doesn’t work at all. Conversely, it couldn’t reveal how the Republican Party functions, but advised me instead to look up synonyms "The Dark Side of the Force," "The Sith" and "Darth Cheney".
Before I get too far with this, I want to say that howstuffworks.com doesn’t tell you WHAT works, it explains HOW things work. It’s pointless in looking up the procedure for getting a one-night pass from home to drink beer with your buddies (for there’s no use in explaining how to get permission to do something that will never be granted). If I did type that in, I would guess the response to such an inquiry would run along the lines of "Does not compute."
As for topics that are covered, howstuffworks.com uses an outline-based style that is as wonderfully straightforward as it is resourceful. All the information is laid out for the average Joe to understand, and surprisingly, documented with bibliographically astute reference notes. (These will come in handy in a minute!)
One of the cooler features of howstuffworks.com is that it highlights a new topic every day. Today’s topic is "How Hostage Negotiation Works," a useful skill if there ever was one. It was there, finally, that I found proper inspiration for not just one, but two columns.
This month’s column is a step-by-step manual for negotiating the release of hostages. And yes, it’s for real. The information given is supplied by experts in their field. It’s only through me that perfectly solid advice becomes twisted and corrupt. However, in these uncertain times of duct tape and elevated code-red terror warnings (gauging terrorism, evidently, is now similar to measuring air pollution or carbon monoxide), anyone anyone at all can be an authority. (It’s not as if you have to know anything about anything to work in Bush administration. Just be a paranoid prick and you may find yourself with a cushy government position, benefits and all.) Besides, we all end up negotiating nothing in particular all the time, so think of this as a refresher course in getting what you want no matter who’s holding the strings.
For kicks, let’s say something valuable is taken hostage from me. Not my wife, as she’d make any terrorist sorry well before the hostage crisis team showed up on the scene. Instead, I’ll invent a situation more diabolically threatening than anything a terrorist could spring on me: My wife takes my Old Style hostage, followed by demands of a cleaner garage if I ever want to see double and slur witty observations again.
Below is an example of the application of information offered on howstuffworks.com. May this become useful to you when faced with a crisis of your own. However, if you mismanage a hostage situation, don’t blame me. I’m no more at fault for disastrous results than a cookbook is for burnt pot roast.
Phase One: The Taking Of Hostages
In the parlance of hostages and negotiators, this is known as the Initial Phase. Described as swift and violent, this is where the terrorist, (in this case my wife) makes their assault on my previously-sovereign case of Old Style. My wife announces the abduction of the hostages, along with her demands. The language of the abductor is one-way: "I got what you want, do what I say and no one gets hurt."
To be effective, the hostages taken need to be important. As for our scenario, let us pretend it’s happening on a Sunday afternoon when beer sales are cut-off in Minnesota. To put the crying in crisis, let’s further pretend the Minnesota Vikings are fifteen minutes away from kick off. Negotiations are desperately one-way: The loss of my beer is dire, replacing it impossible (I don’t, under any stretch of imagination, have time to drive to Wisconsin), therefore the welfare and safety of the hostages is placed on the highest level.
The endgame of the first phase results in a list of demands to be met if a peaceful resolution is to be obtained. The terrorist (my wife) announces that the mess in the garage is a travesty to all mankind, thus any sacrifices made are justified for the vindication of the People’s Garage Cleanliness Front.
Phase Two: Negotiations
After receiving notification that hostages have been taken and will not be released until the demands put forth are met, the ball lands in the negotiator’s hands. There are three usual outcomes stemming from the situation at this point: The terrorist surrenders (usually upon seeing the utter futility of their position), police assault the captor (generally resulting in a mess of casualties on both sides) or, more rarely, the terrorist gets away with all demands met.
Although it is accepted that the hostage-taker holds the upper hand in talks, it is within the negotiations that the power slips out of the terrorist’s hands. This is because more often then not the captor generally asks for things that can’t be delivered. When demands such as the "liberation" of a state within a sovereign republic or the "cleaning" of the garage during a Vikings game are required to be fulfilled for the terrorist to release the hostages, compliance becomes impossible.
Either way, it’s at this junction that the negotiator manipulates shared relationships with the terrorist to stake an advantage in the resolution. Since no hostage situation ends squarely within the parameters above, it is in this grey area that I would make my move to establish what it is that I’ll do or not do in compliance with the terrorist demands.
To combat the intense, one-sided insistence of my beer’s captor, howstuffworks.com recommends that the negotiator play upon four conversational objectives to resolve matters with a minimum of casualties:
1. Prolong negotiations
2. Ensure the safety of the hostages by keeping the captor calm
3. Foster a relationship between the negotiator, the captor and the hostages
4. Make a deal that secures the release of the hostages, or at least buys more time to plan a rescue
The first of these is to prolong the time it takes to meet their demand. I would either express a growing disinterest for beer that is steadily growing warmer, or stall my wife from pouring it down the sink by claiming that cleaning the garage requires more tools (broom, Hefty bags, dustpan) than I have available. Either way, she has to sit on the hostage, keeping it out of harms way until it’s usefulness is reestablished in our negotiations or the required set of brooms is procured.
The second tactic involves in the assurance of the hostages; that the beer is unshaken, kept in a cold environment, and if possible, unmolested by its captor; an empty beer can is worthless both to me and to the terrorist. The next-best of all possibilities is the release of some of the hostages. Since negotiations only go as far as I allow, the relative importance of establishing a circle of trust between me, my wife, and the beer in danger is elevated. The good news is at this juncture the captor of my suds needs to give a little in order to create a space where trust can thrive, thus the advantage falls into my lap. This is where I may be able to secure the release of a nominal number of prisoners (such as a six-pack) as a show of good faith.
The third tactic puts the focus of communication on the terrorist.
Although my Old Style’s captor may resent any form of cooperation, meeting me on common ground will foster raised expectations that her demands will be met.
The hostages (if I can secure the release of a six-pack) can give valuable information about the condition of the remaining beers: Are they ice cold? Are they dented? Have 3.2% stand-ins been substituted? Every piece of information serves as a window into the mind of the terrorist, thus decreasing the odds I’ll have to give in and clean the garage.
Whereas my wife seems content with capturing my Old Style, notifying me of their imprisonment, threatening me with their shelf-life, and generally making recalcitrant demands in exchange for my beer’s safety, the best way for me to utilize the points in Phase Two is to pacify her fears that I have a counter-plan in place of beer abduction. (Which is the point of this column, and so it is with actual hostage negotiators. But there’s no reason to tip any of them off!)
Either way, keeping the terrorist calm and my hostages out of harms way is the goal. The best course of action is foster a relationship between myself and the terrorist, and between the hostage-taker and the hostages. The main strategy to build such a relationship is to concede small demands, such as food and water. (Ironically, in this case, the hostages themselves fulfill the requirements of sustenance; beer quenches the thirst better than water, and who cares about food when you have a cooler full of cold, satisfying Old Style beer?)
Beyond giving in to small demands, the negotiator often keeps the hostage taker busy by distracting their attention on the micromanagement of pointless details instead of their main demands. If it’s a helicopter they want, then what color? In this case, how clean does she want the garage? Swept and vacuumed? Tools organized? In what order? If the garbage is to go into the trashcan, does the can have to be dragged out to the curb? And so on, and so on!
Eliciting responses from the captor builds trust by setting small goals and deadlines that can be easily met while fostering a repertoire of communication between the three parties. Keeping in clear contact with the hostage takers works towards a peaceful resolution in yet another way: Beyond reinforcing the negotiator’s credibility, the captor becomes engaged with the hostages. While this works to keep things calm for a while, there is a real danger of the hostages becoming over-sympathetic with there captors.
This is known in the business as the Stockholm Syndrome (not to be confused with Dave Schools and Jerry Joseph’s side project, although you can insert your own hostage jokes here). The Stockholm Syndrome is named after a bank heist gone terribly wrong in Sweden. While the robbers found themselves in a six-day standoff, the hostages became enamored with their captors, serving as lookouts and giving the thieves advice. In fact, one of the female hostages married one of her captors after he was sent to prison.
Any stratagem can backfire, although nothing is worse than the terrorist running out of patience and executing the hostages one by one. For the purposes of my example, we can see why my wife may reciprocate feelings of affection with her hostages: Old Style doesn’t judge, it only ever exhibits undying love for whoever is holding on to it.
Of all the possible ways to approach bond building, the ultimate point is to prolong the beer’s life expectancy by delaying my wife’s opportunity to stab them with an ice pick in preparation of a world-class shot-gunning. Despite the danger of my Old Style’s premature demise by my wife’s villainous hand, the thrust of buying time for my precious barley-pop only serves to expedite a process where the captor believes the negotiations come to fruition. This is called "Let’s Make A Deal."
To keep the peace between hostages and their captor, a negotiator must address the anger that led up to the crisis in the first place. Gathering the inside scoop on the demands itself reveals the terrorist’s mind: Was the garage a mess because I partied with my friends in grand fashion one evening, or is this beer-napping the result of a long and thorough mess maintained as such over time?
Either way, keeping my wife calm and my beer cold (and out of harm’s way!) is the goal. While glad-handing my wife with promises of sushi dinners and dancing, mannerisms as to the state of her mental condition may be revealed. Reaction to negotiations differs greatly between a depressed and suicidal hijacker and an overly-idealistic revolutionary. It is of tremendous importance for the negotiating process to correctly ascertain whether my wife is willing to kill all my beer and die herself in order to get the garage clean. If I’ll have any luck at all in restoring peace and justice, a bridge must be built through communication.
The best course of action is fostering a relationship between the negotiator and the terrorist, and if possible, between the hostage-taker and the hostages. All people, even assholes, build relationships by doing nothing more than paying attention. If my wife can bother paying attention to the state of the garage, then she keep her ears peeled for pleas of mercy and understanding for the fate of my beer. It’s within this space deals are made, and once again it’s important to constrict the deals to small, easily achievable goals.
There is a danger in meeting demands too fast. In the 1970s and early ’80s, the French cultivated a reputation for being pussies after bowing to terrorists in several consecutive situations. Inspiring nutcases with guns everywhere, the natural result of said policies only invited more tragic situations. Even though the French should have learned this lesson in the ’30s when they foolishly followed British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain into a policy of appeasement towards Hitler’s very dubious acquisitions of the Rhineland and beyond. But the French have never been known as master historians, so nobody was surprised when history repeated itself. Similarly, missing the game to clean the garage (even with my beer safely in my hot little mitts) doesn’t equal victory by any measure.
The other extreme of the deal-making phase has made the news in the last few years by that great and humanitarian nation Russia. Always known for treasuring the value of human life, the Russians used a variation of their World War II line of attack when dealing with terrorists: Let everyone die and have God sort it out. While this does put a final resolution on the crisis, most hostage negotiators may suffer pangs of job insecurity after resorting to the "Moscow Method." As for me, this is thoroughly unacceptable. Old Style is a natural companion to football, and one without the other will never be as good. Talk about two great tastes that taste great together!
If a negotiator finds purchase in the offering and concession of deal making, the main objective remains keeping the captor busy with pointless details. It is at this point that the negotiator seizes the upper hand brings about the resolution.
Phase Three: Termination
No matter what, all things must pass, including negotiations. Either the captor gives up (not an option with my wife), the hostages meet a terrible fate (not an option with my beer), or the garage is. Since this is an essay in winning (even with acceptable losses), we’ll eject the possibility that I would miss the game.
Even though howstuffworks.com gets a little fuzzy in probability of my beer’s survival in the event of a booze-napping, I’m going to place my hopes for success on a rescue mission if negotiations fail. Truth be told, my wife is 5’2" and weighs sixty-two pounds. Barring a break-down in talks, chances are good I’ll miss little more than ten minutes of the first quarter if I go the assault route. In short, talk is cheap, but the game is priceless.
Addendum: The finer points of hostage negotiation are really only half the fun when conceptualizing terrorism. There’s something to be said for the merit of being the terrorist (although much less can be said about being married to me). If you noticed, this is part one of two … Next month: How to kidnap people and brain-wash friends!
This month’s Old Style Zealot is unknown. What we do have is a fine example of his art. Left on stage at a festival in Black River Falls, WI, the good ship S.S. Old Style must be the reverse of building a ship in a bottle: Drink the booze then make a ship out of the remains. So to whoever you are: I promise to always cherish this tribute to the miracle of beer, this alter of kreausening. May you live well, be nice to your mother, and drink your milk.