Chapter 2: The Protocol of Hostage Situations – Diane Gromelski

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.


3 thoughts on “Chapter 2: The Protocol of Hostage Situations – Diane Gromelski

  1. Michael Pedersen says:

    Intriguing post Diane, seems like you have the slow research aspect down pat.

    I was especially interested by your research into the general procedure of a hostage situation. In some respects my own research on how Messner established his authority reflects your own list of key negotiation tactics. Specifically it mentioned that in order to gain rapport with the terrorists it’s important to talk about universal themes and life difficulties. As mentioned in class it could be interesting to do some additional research into how terrorists must think of their hostages and negotiators as human in order to evoke empathy.

    You also mentioned how active listening is important for terrorist negotiation since it makes the terrorists feel like someone is listening. In this situation the Generals seem less interested in being heard as a voice of social or political change and are more more concerned with the President himself. Though simply conjecture this might mean that the terrorist’s true aims are not political reform but are instead more personal. The fact that the Generals don’t seem like they’ll kill the Vice President any time soon also hints that they are not interested in destroying the chain of command. Perhaps it would be interesting to look into how negotiators gauge the terrorist’s motives and how it plays a role in determining concessions they are willing to make for the terrorists.

    The idea of setting dangerous hostage situation precedents is a huge topic in and of itself. Since these situations are almost always heavily publicized with many high status hostages the action the government takes can break their relationship with many countries and businesses. As Messner noted in the book about a previous hostage situation in this country where all the hostage takers where killed. The idea of why a country might be more prone to hostage situations is another possible avenue for deeper research.

    – Michael Pedersen

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Colin Murphy says:

    Hi Diane,

    An excellent contribution to our class blog! And your sources look great too. Michael’s right – you’ve got a great understanding of Slow Research!

    Like you, I also conducted research on how to handle hostage situations (albeit from the perspective of a hostage, not Messner, appropriate law enforcement agencies, or government officials). My research focused on hostage mental state and behavior during a time of crisis. Your noticing French Ambassador Simon Thibault’s prior training on how to behave during a hostage situation caught my attention. One of my sources – titled Hostage Survival Skills – is a handout from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) lecture explaining how to remain calm during such a situation. Ambassador Thibault’s “mandatory seminar” was likely similar to one NATO officers are required to sit through.

    Your research on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also stood out as I read through your post. I absolutely agree with your prediction that Messner is involved with the committee; he certainly does play the role of such a committee member with great success thus far. Active listening makes a lot of sense when thought of as a priority first step to a hostage’s release. It funny – in “the movies,” most government officials refuse to negotiate with terrorists and don’t listen in an understanding manner. I suppose the Head of FBI International Hostage Negotiation Chris Voss’ technique isn’t quite nearly as dramatic.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post, Diane, and will leave you with a question: How do you suspect Messner’s role will change or evolve over the course of the coming chapters of the novel?

    – Colin

    Liked by 1 person

  3. hcelemen says:

    Diane, I found your research on the process of hostage taking very interesting because I was also intrigued by Messner’s role in this situation. His calm composure and neutral attitude towards the terrorists was a good indication of his experience dealing with such demanding people. I believe you did a great job really digging into a negotiator’s mind and explaining how they must conduct themselves. Our discussion in class also game me further perspective as to how these things work out. It is an interesting system of bargaining and making sure your losses are not as high as the other party. As the mediator, he acts as a bridge between the people on the outside and the people on the inside. His words are heavily weighed before being spoken and his ability to read the situation are some key skills I’ve observed from this chapter. I realize that this is a lot a pressure and stress for one man to carry because the safety of the hostages and how the terrorists will react greatly depends on how he conducts himself. Even though he is just acting as a messenger, Patchett has likely given him the most important role in determining how this negotiation will end. Your reference to Chris Voss’s statement about being an active listener during negotiations brings us back to Patchett’s over arching theme of forming connections. By listening closely to the terrorists, he learned that they were not LDA but La Familia de Martin Suarez. He can only hope that they will cooperate and be as reasonable as they make themselves out to be. I also liked that you were able to identify that this hostage situation as a siege. Learning what a siege is brings me back to the real-life hostage crisis in which it ended with the government doing a final assault that saved the rest of the hostages and the elimination of all the terrorists. I can’t help but compare this book to that event as I keep waiting for that point where Patchett deviates the book away from the hostage crisis.


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