STALLING FOR TIME: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator

Gary Noesner
Random House ($26)

by Weston Cutter

Given that the word terrorist for most people conjures “middle-easterner,” and the Tea Party movement seems built on ideas remarkably similar to those held by rural militias, Gary Noesner's Stalling for Time is a strangely nostalgic book—one that, for anyone who was alive in the 1990s, will make the last decade's political shifts seem abundantly strange indeed.

Subtitled My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, Noesner's book could've quite easily been some ghosted boilerplate page turner pushed hard by publishers as “the real deal” for folks who love Robert Harris, Tom Clancy, or James Patterson. Instead, Stalling for Time is a book-length reflection and meditation on the most critical word gracing its cover: negotiate.

"Listening is the cheapest concession we can ever make," Noesner writes to close his brief preface, and nestled in that pithy nugget is what you need to know about the book to come. Noesner's job requires him to be a dispassionate economist of emotional situations, arriving on-scene to keep the ledger from going literally or figuratively red. He walks the reader through the biggest stand-offs of the ‘90s—Waco, Ruby Ridge, the Freemen in Montana—and through lucid writing, allows how simply listening to these men drastically lowered temperatures, time and again.

Here's his account of meeting with members of the Montana Militia in Hell Creek Bar in Jordan, Montana: "I figured we had nothing to hide from these guys, so instead of playing tough or arguing, which evidently was what they'd expected, Tom and I tried to disarm them with openness and candor. . . . I told them that we were trying to avoid the kind of outcome that had happened at Waco and Ruby Ridge, and that we planned to negotiate in good faith with the Freemen." After the meeting, "these men shook our hands much more vigorously than they had coming in, nodded, and made eye contact." Noesner even brings food and medicine to hostage-takers—not to placate them but, in good economic fashion, to keep their focus on the issue at hand.

In hostage situations, there are those who have initiated a dangerous scenario with specific ends in mind and those who have not—people who have simply found themselves in a situation of escalated chaos and danger. This distinction, a civilian may hope, would be obvious in hostage negotiation, but here Noesner's other agenda comes into play: he discusses the clash between intelligence and enforcement agencies, and shows how the mentality of machismo—of giving no quarter to terrorists, of treating all stand-offs as completely oppositional—is horrifically, fatally flawed. "As I watched the television pictures of the [Branch Davidian] compound going up in flames, I felt sick to the pit of my stomach. I was as angry as I have ever been in my life. How could this have ended so badly? I was mostly angry at Koresh and the senseless waste of life he had ordered, but I was also mad that the FBI had not handled this as well as I knew we could have."

In the years since that confrontation, the rhetoric of conflict has been torqued to bleak levels. Though Noesner's book is not fundamentally political, it's next to impossible to read Stalling For Time as anything other than a measured, levelheaded plea to respect the space between opinions. All of the crises that transform from speech into weapons-based arguments come as a result of one of the sides deciding to give up on words, on compromise. "I am not opposed to the use of force when necessary," Noesner writes in the book's epilogue, "I also happen to be the very proud father of a Navy SEAL. Yet, I know that it's absolutely vital that government leaders not use these brave soldiers and sailors, and the tremendous capabilities they represent, unless it's absolutely necessary."

Stalling For Time is thus that rarest of items in these us-against-everyone times: a reasonable book which, couching its arguments in the economic language of results, argues for listening to those with whom we disagree—not out of any bleeding-heart goodness, but out of square-jawed utility.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011