Book Review: Stalling For Time

Stalling For Time: My Life As An FBI Negociator, by Gary Noesner

I was loaned this book last Sabbath a fellow member of the congregation who enjoys reading as well [1], and found this book to be thankfully short (only about 220 pages or so) but a strange mix of wise advice combined with an incredibly biased perspective and self-serving attitude that would appear to have made this person difficult to deal with for those who do not share his statist worldview. In viewing this book and its worth (and its perspective), we have to remember that we are dealing with an author who has multiple agendas at work: he spent his entire adult life working for the FBI, and clearly wishes to legitimize their activity (even on foreign soil) in the eyes of an American audience (though perhaps I am a more skeptical reader than most would be), and so he clearly has an agenda that favors the expansion of federal authority even though the book is full of examples that the government is not necessarily very competent at those powers it wishes to claim. Second, in the internecine political struggles within the FBI, he is clearly on the side of those who believe in the value of negotiation (from a strategic perspective) rather than in a wholehearted devotion only to tactical charges that are costly and wasteful in terms of human life. These twin agendas drive the undertones of the narrative and the perspective of the author as related through his stories of his professional life.

To the extent that this book focuses on the actual behavior of crisis negotiation teams as well as the value of negotiation, this is a good book. Although many of the stories here are not new, they are well-told and give a fascinating picture of the lack of unity in command on the side of both sides in many crises. In discussions of an Alabama prison riot, for example, the author discusses how FBI negotiators had to encourage the existence of authority among the three prisoner groups in order to negotiate to a successful conclusion, and points out that the prisoners in that exchange had some valid grievances. Likewise, towards the end of the book the author discusses his belief that families and businesses should always have the right to ransom people without concern of being convicted of aiding and abetting terrorist groups who use kidnapping as a form of revenue generation (like the Somali pirates [2]) and his belief that the United States government would negotiate with terrorists who had conducted a hostage situation in a US airport. Likewise, the author discusses that from a strategic point of view that it is wise to give respect to others as a way of leading to better outcomes as well as avoiding wasteful death and political difficulties (as well as potentially expensive lawsuits). From a worldly perspective, this is certainly wise advice, and it underscores the need to be a good listener and to treat others with respect as a general way of managing conflicts and disagreements in life. Even if few people have to deal with hostage negotiations, this advice is sound.

Unfortunately, the wisdom of this advice and the exciting storytelling that this book has is undercut by some offensive biases. For one, the author has a clear bias against both religious and conservative opponents of the FBI. He shows more respect, for example, to Muslim fundamentalists than he does to ‘Christian’ opponents, spending a great deal of time discussing the religious beliefs of David Koresh and making fun of his biblical knowledge, but showing no tendency to subject the Islamist terrorists to the same degree of withering criticism. Likewise, the author praises the restraint of the Tupac Amuru terrorists (left-wing terrorists in Peru that he had to deal with) without showing the same degree of respect for those who he considers right-wing militias, and who he routinely connects with their political ideology (something he does not do for left-wing guerrillas). This lack of evenhandedness makes this work a frustrating example of a book whose offensive political bias undercuts one’s feeling of genuineness on his part, given that his contempt for either principled opponents of the expansion of federal control or those who have sincere Christian religious beliefs undercuts his primary aim of showing the importance of projecting respect in negotiations, a respect that he apparently does not feel for those who have opposing religious and political worldviews. Ultimately, this book has wise advice but is harmed by it being told by a spectacularly unsympathetic messenger. The author’s concerns about the lack of expertise of governments (both at home and abroad) in dealing with major crises is sound, but the author’s perspective itself represents one of the major causes of that tension between the encroachment of the state and the resistance to that encroachment on the part of those who feel powerless and marginalized and who are not treated with respect in these pages [3].

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] Witness, for example, how the author describes his work:

In that capacity he was heavily involved in numerous hostage, barricade, and suicide incidents; covering prison riots, right-wing militia standoffs, religious zealot sieges, terrorist embassy takeovers, airplane hijackings, and over 120 overseas kidnapping cases involving American citizens.” Notice the biased language.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Book Review: Stalling For Time

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