Gary Noesner – G-man Extraordinaire
He helped develop the FBI’s nonviolent communication techniques for achieving peaceful outcomes in tense situations.
The scene is Labor Day, 1972. The world is tuned to the games of the XX Olympiad unfolding in Munich, West Germany. But something beyond golden fall leaves and gold medal counts is about to transpire which will forever change our world.
The following morning, Tuesday, September 5th, Palestinian terrorists donned in unnerving masks ambush and kill two Israeli athletes in their Olympic Village housing complex, taking nine others hostage. After failed negotiations, the hostages are taken to the Munich airport where a gun battle with German police ensues leaving a body count of one policeman, five terrorists and all nine hostages, for a total of eleven Israelis declared dead.
Just a week before, in Brooklyn, New York, a bungled bank robbery leads to the taking of seven employees as hostages. A fourteen-hour-long siege follows, also in the bright light of live television, and with over 2,000 onlookers gathered in the surrounds. Thankfully, the hostages survive the ordeal, while one perpetrator is killed and another captured and later prosecuted. The bizarre event inspires Al Pacino’s starring role in the movie Dog Day Afternoon.
Tuned into the same chilling spectacles is a recent college graduate named Gary Noesner, a wet-behind-the-ears employee at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. He is absorbing these dramas from a more intensely personal perspective and immediately understands four things: One, our world is getting darker and more threatening by the week. Second, to accept this new reality is to know that both the Munich Olympic Village and the referenced Chase Manhattan bank branch had woefully inadequate security. Third, the respective hostage negotiators gravely lacked the expertise necessary to win their days. Lastly, whatever may have been his previous career path, it had now shifted inalterably.
Clean-Cut Child of the 60s
Born in 1950, Noesner was raised in the small community of Atlantic Beach, Florida, near Jacksonville. In his critically-acclaimed 2010 book, Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, he describes his early days as “quintessentially American, blessed with loving and supportive parents.” In high school he captained the track and cross country teams and his free time was consumed with swimming and surfing in the ocean, rafting through the marshes, and building forts.
It was the Leave it to Beaver years when everything was perfectly manicured and unspoiled. However, we were also motoring inexorably towards The Wonder Years. Meaning, the calm before the virulent storm of the 1960s, fueled by an unpopular war and our intense, regrettable Civil Rights struggles.
Noesner recalls areas of the vast, greater Jacksonville footprint in stark contrast to his safe and well-scrubbed environs. He noticed downtrodden enclaves and he often witnessed “the ugly face of discrimination.” He sought his parent’s wise counsel and they informed him that “the segregation rampant across the South is simply reprehensible. Everyone on earth is of equal value.” They pounded home the message by saying, “every person alive is deserving of our respect and love, period.” His heart was forever imprinted with such gilded truths.
Noesner was also strongly influenced by watching a particular episode of The Mickey Mouse Club. The show featured a visit to FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. and included an interview with legendary FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, wherein he described heroic agents chasing down gangsters during the Prohibition years and other exciting feats of bravery in the name of justice. Then, Hoover went in for the close. He displayed and fired off the ‘rat-tat-tats’ of a Thompson submachine gun, favored by both G-men and Al Capone. Noesner was hooked, lined and sunk.
In his senior year at Florida Southern, Noesner took a teaching internship at neighboring Lakeland High School. There, he mentored a diverse student body and encountered racial tensions up close as never before. Acting on his parent’s good advice, he was a fair-minded, patient and respectful mediator. It was the perfect training for what was about to come.
Advancing Conflict Intervention
Negotiating with hostage-takers was scarcely a concept at the FBI when Gary Noesner was first appointed Special Agent in 1976. After joining the Bureau he met his future wife, Carol, and successfully negotiated her hand in marriage.
At the time, whenever a hostage crisis would arise, a SWAT team would typically secure the scene, warn the perpetrators to surrender peacefully, then demand the same, and finally, sans cooperation they would initiate an impetuous assault often resulting in a bloodletting. The foundational idea was that with every passing minute the hostages’ lives were at greater risk and relatively immediate action was an imperative.
Seeing this approach as fatally flawed, Noesner knew it could be improved by adopting a strategy based on compassion, patience, and savvy. Hostage-takers were desperate and dangerous, and wished to be noticed, their grievances heard, they wanted to be respected and understood.
Agent Noesner was in the forefront of creating just such a hostage training program. A truly revolutionary figure, he helped shift the Bureau’s priority to non-violent techniques meant to achieve peaceful outcomes. He would later lead the “Crisis Negotiation Unit,” which would become instrumental and highly-visible in the years ahead.
Terrorism on the Rise
The 1980s brought with it a growing wave of global terrorism, most infamously the Iran Hostage Crisis, the Marine barracks bombings in Beirut, several Embassy bombings throughout the region, attacks at high-profile airports and hijackings of international commercial flights. “At the time,” Noesner recalls, “FBI agents were not well-versed in the culture of Middle East terrorism and we had to get up to speed quickly. Millions of innocent lives were at stake.” With a wife and three young children at home, he spent six months a year with the ‘Counterterrorism Division’ traveling through the volatile Middle East and elsewhere tracking down terrorists and recruiting informants.
Closer to home, the decade of the 90s brought with it a mushrooming of domestic violence, including the first attack on the World Trade Center and the rise of right wing, anti-government militias. As “Chief Negotiator” for all significant hostage-related crises, Noesner was smack in the middle of it all. Many of these incidents are covered in his compelling book, Stalling for Time.
The incident which brought Noesner the most fame, and the most heartache, was the 1993 siege of David Koresh’s fanatical cult, Branch Davidians, at their Ranch Apocalypse in Waco, Texas. It ended fifty-one long days later in mass suicide when the compound burned to the ground killing seventy-five cult members, including many helpless woman and children. The tragic ending, which Noesner calls “the saddest, most painful day of my career,” has been extensively documented in his book, on several cable television programs, and most recently in the 2018 six-part Paramount television series simply titled, Waco.
On the second anniversary of Waco, in virulent protest of the government’s perceived abuse of power, Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols and other conspirators set off a massive truck bomb at an Oklahoma City federal building killing 168 innocents, including dozens of children in a day care center, while injuring over 300.
On the crisp, blue-skied morning of September 11, 2001, lower Manhattan’s Twin Towers came searing to the black ash-shrouded ground marking the most heinous terrorist act on domestic soil in our history. The seminal ‘9-11’ strike opened a whole new chapter in the war on global terrorism.
It’s clear that the nefarious underworld never offers a moment of rest. The FBI agent is never off the clock. Until they retire, that is. Gary Noesner did just that in 2003, stepping away from his distinguished 30-year career to pursue other interests. These include speaking engagements at corporate and law enforcement events, global security consulting, writing his life story, consulting on television productions and most importantly, reacquainting intimately with his extending family in their idyllic, rural, lakeside Virginia homestead.
The Active Listener
Gary Noesner is an extraordinary person who values the science of human psychology and behavior, endeavoring to understand just what influences a person to think and behave as they do. In life and death crises, he sought to influence confused, despairing people to a different way of thinking. Using his patient, kindhearted voice of reason, he became one of the world’s leading experts in conflict resolution while preserving countless lives along the way.
In his formative years, this G-man extraordinaire had planted within him the seeds of greatness and he has been a most fertile garden, reaping what’s been sown to make our world a better place. We at Throomers, thank you, Sir, for your thirty years of service and for the important lessons you are still teaching today. God bless you, your family, and our great country.