Understanding Sam Hengel, the Gunman at Marinette High School

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Dec. 2 2010 11:16 AM

Understanding Sam Hengel, the Gunman at Marinette High School

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A guest post from Dave Cullen, author of Columbine , which has a new Instructor Guide and Student Guide .

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Did a hostage standoff actually take place in Wisconsin Monday night, when Marinette High School sophomore Sam Hengel held 24 students and a teacher for six hours ? FBI doctrine suggests no, and understanding how Hengel was actually thinking was key to keeping the people he held alive.

Gunmen with a purpose corral bystanders as bargaining chips. They issue demands using humans as currency. Those are hostages. Everything we've learned about Monday suggests the people trapped by Hengel were not. Which put them in grave danger.

Hostage-takers are dangerous, ruthless, and often ready to kill. But they are rational. You bargain with them. The hostages are actually much safer than they appear. The gunman understands their value. His focus is protecting his assets, not discarding them. "The primary goal is not to harm the hostages," a widely used FBI manual states. "In fact, hostage takers realize that only through keeping the hostages alive can they hope to achieve their goals."

In Marinette, Hengel brandished two handguns, but made no demands. Perpetrators like that are quite common. They hold people at gunpoint as victims. If the victims remain alive, that is generally because their captor can't decide what to do with them. They issue no demands, because they have none. All they want is someone to lash out against. "They are motivated by anger, rage, frustration, hurt, confusion or depression," the FBI manual states. "The potential for homicide followed by suicide in many of these cases if very high." Columbine , Virginia Tech, and Waco were all victim situations. Emotion trumped reason, and people died.

Shooters in victim crises like Marinette are remarkably similar, says Retired Special Agent Gary Noesner, who founded the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit and wrote Stalling For Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator . "Helplessness and hopelessness" are the hallmarks, Noesner said. That’s a combustible combination: The person feels powerless to affect his intolerable condition and hopeless that the suffering will ever end.

Negotiators intimidate true hostage-takers with demonstrations of force. They insist on a trade for every trivial concession, to establish firm control. Those tactics would just inflame a victim situation like Marinette, Noesner said. The FBI doctrine he helped establish advises police to keep a low profile and offer incentives like food or cigarettes without condition to build rapport. It’s all about calming the gunmen, defusing the anger that set him in motion.

Amazingly, the kids and teacher inside Marinette High School took that approach intuitively. "My goal during this incident was to keep Sam and the other students as calm as possible," teacher Valerie Burd said in a statement. Students described calming him with chatter about hunting and fishing-any subject he liked. Hengel refused to talk to cops, but allowed Burd to speak with them by cellphone throughout the standoff. That’s common, too, Noesner said. "Often the person is fearful that if they talk to police they will be manipulated. We’ll be able to see into their soul. There’s an insulative protection by speaking through another person."

Burd’s role may have kept her alive, Noesner said. As the only adult in the room, she was a likely primary target. But acting as mediator "almost put her on the team," he said. "Her leadership in that classroom was the calming attitude that the students needed to get them out of there safely," Principal Corry Lambie said. When the police entered the classroom, Hengel shot only himself. He died Tuesday.

It may seem obvious that the calming and defusing approach is the way to go, but veteran cops used to routinely escalate crises like this one out of ignorance, frustration, and ego. Some still do, Noesner said. "They say, 'If you don’t come out, we’re going to kick your butt.’ " The cops in Marinette were apparently smarter than that. So were the civilians in the room.

Photogrpah of the sign in front of Marinette High School in Wisconsin.

Dave Cullen is the author of Columbine.

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