In Chapter 2, we learn more about how the terrorists intend to deal with the hostage situation they have unexpectedly gotten themselves into. In order to have any chance of having their demands met, they must negotiate with Joachim Messner, a representative of the Red Cross. I was surprised by how cordial and understanding Messner is with the terrorists as he is negotiating with them; he seems to have so much experience with hostage situations that he knows exactly how to behave to gain their trust. We also learned that some of the hostages have had survival training that specifically pertains to hostage situations through French ambassador Simon Thibault’s memory of attending a “mandatory seminar” in Switzerland on the protocol for the capture of an embassy. Being a political science major, I became interested in the history of hostage situations and how terrorists use the hostage method as a bargaining tool in international and domestic politics.
Hostage taking is the process of holding at least one person illegally in order to pressure a third party to do or refrain from an action in exchange for release of the hostage. In 1949, hostage taking was officially prohibited under international law by the Fourth Geneva Convention. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the institution for which Messner likely works, was founded in 1863 as a neutral organization to promote humanitarian ideals on a global scale and provide help assistance to those who have been impacted by war and government-sponsored violence. As part of their efforts to protect civilians during times of unrest, ICRC often acts as a negotiator in hostage situations. While negotiators are required to act civilly toward hostage-takers as Messner does, the ICRC emphasizes that they are “guided solely by the interests of the victims and the desire to relieve their suffering” and do not condone the practice of hostage taking.
Chapter 2 makes a few references to the general procedure of how hostage situations are resolved and the methods negotiators use to decrease the likelihood of hostage deaths (as displayed by Messner). For example, in the seminar Thibault attended, he learned that hostage takers will often release the women and children in a group, presumably to cut down on the number of people they have to manage and eliminate those who would not be as useful as bargaining chips. In hostage situations, there are in fact a number of strategies that hostage takers and negotiators use as they try to resolve the situation in their favor. The hostage unit in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has outlined some of the strategies they use in their Behavior Change Stairway Model. According to the information contained in this document, the keys to negotiating with hostages include:
1) Listening to the terrorists’ grievances and demands actively and with empathy
2) Establishing rapport with the terrorists
3) Recommending a course of action that will resolve the situation
Head of FBI International Hostage Negotiation Chris Voss said in an interview that the most important step is active listening, as one of the most common causes of hostage taking is that oppressed people in a society feel they must resort to terrorism for their voice to be heard. By acknowledging the hostage takers have reasonable complaints, the negotiator gains the trust they will need later when they recommend a course of action.
While negotiators may form a good relationship with the terrorists, there is no guarantee demands will be met by those who make the decisions. According to the FBI, the people who make the decisions (i.e. politicians) should never directly negotiate with the hostages, hence the need for men like Messner. As I learned in my international politics class, one of the most important considerations for governments to make when negotiating with hostage takers is the precedent they will set if they grant concessions. In their efforts to get hostages released, they could incentivize terrorism and encourage more hostage situations. However, in most hostage situations the government does grant some concessions in exchange for hostages, and just 5 percent of hostage crises end in loss of life.
Through my research, I discovered that there are two types of hostage situations: a siege, in which hostages are contained in a site known to authorities, and a hideout, in which hostages are in an unknown location. In Bel Canto we are dealing with a siege, which will affect the dynamics between the hostage takers and the police, especially in terms of termination of the crisis. In his article on game theory and hostage situations, Reuben Miller asserts that sieges usually lead to “a final assault by government forces” in the form of a surprise attack so as not to allow time for the terrorists to kill the hostages in a final act of defiance, as opposed to the typical outcome in a hideout: the hostage takers simply give up and release the hostages after a period of time, using their anonymity to escape. I will be curious to see how the hostage situation ends in Bel Canto ends and whether the government is willing to grant concessions to the terrorists.