On The Topic of "Surviving Terrorist Attacks"
We’ll be blunt. This is not generally a topic we would consider for this site. It’s not that it is somehow unworthy of consideration or discussion but rather it’s too complex for a blog entry. Violence, in any form, is simple action but with varied motivations, multiple layers of execution, and near-infinite permutations. A deterrent to a common robber is a minor obstacle to a determined assailant, and nearly irrelevant to someone intent on mass-murder and suicide.
Responses to violence are equally as varied, depending on the defenders’ attitude, age, philosophy, circumstances, and abilities. A lone twenty-eight-year-old athlete with a concealed carry permit will have more options than a seventy-four-year-old grandparent with grandkids in tow at the mall. Of course, if that young athlete has a passive personality and Grandpa is a combat veteran who has retained the aggression of his youthful military training, he may make better use of those limited options.
There are no guaranteed “just do this one simple trick to survive” responses that fit all scenarios, despite what some pundits, politicians, or websites would have you believe. There are good and useful skills, though, and we’d like to briefly touch on a few of them.
Skill #1: Stop freaking out
It’s easy to say “Don’t be afraid.” But when the twenty-four-hour news cycle repeatedly hammers the details of the attacks, news anchors conduct “expert interviews” to speculate on what it might be like if it happens here, and social media perpetually recycling it all, it’s natural to consider what it might be like to find yourself in the midst of such an event. And it’s completely terrifying to contemplate the unexpected and violent end to your life, through no action of your own.
You need to take a breath and stop. From a philosophical standpoint, fear robs you of everything positive. It blunts your enjoyment of life, it keeps you from seeing and appreciating the beauty and good around you, it colors your interactions with others. From a practical standpoint, worry is exhausting. It drains your energy, deadens your decision-making, and introduces hesitation, slowing your reactions. In the words of sci-fi writer Frank Herbert, “Fear is the mind-killer.”
Violent attacks – whether we call them “crime” or “terrorism” - have occurred for as long as humans formed tribes and will continue for as long as humans disagree. Statistically, though, you are unlikely to be involved in one. This means you are blessed with an opportunity to consider it clinically without fearing it viscerally… if you stop freaking yourself out.
Turn off the news if you need to. Let Facebook tend to itself for a little while. Leave the Yahoo Headlines reading to the rest of the Internet until you catch your breath. These venues are deliberately slanted towards sensationalism to drive interest, traffic, and advertising dollars. Pull your shoulders out of your ears, stop biting your nails, and let your adrenaline levels start to fall. When you’ve calmed down enough to start exposing yourself to it again, remember to consider facts rather than feelings and to detect the difference between data and drama.
Skill #2: Start moving your body
During the attacks of September 11th, as tons of steel, glass, and choking debris came crashing down upon scores of passers-by, the only "survival skill" that mattered was the ability to run like hell, for a total distance of "until I can’t anymore." In Paris' Bataclan, several people escaped by being able to pull themselves over rooftop parapets into neighboring attics - after running like hell to get out of the kill zone.
Over-complication is a form of denial, and it’s easy to distract yourself from fear by wrapping your mind around exotic and foreign new concepts. You’ll find some new skill that requires time to master, professional instruction, and special equipment. Then you’ll spend some time researching. Then you’ll realize it’s a bit too expensive… or hard to fit into your schedule… or beyond your abilities at the moment. Then you’ll tell yourself that the whole notion is just too, well, exotic and foreign. What were you thinking? And you’ll laugh it off, changing nothing, and forgetting why you cared to being with.
Move. Your. Body. You already own all the equipment – you carry it with you everywhere – and you needn’t worry about finding the right instructor. Just move. You don’t even necessarily need to “create a routine” so long as you commit to doing something every day. Pushups. Burpees. Sprint for all you’re worth for as far as you can, and try to increase your performance – even by a single foot or second – each time you try. Spend the few dollars necessary to install a chinup bar (though focus on pullups, with palms facing out, as if gripping the top of a wall) or buy a simple jump rope. Move for just ten minutes each day, whether that translates to gasping and struggling through two pullups or easily sprinting two miles.
When we were children, we used to refer to this kind of activity as “fun” and “playing” rather than “working out” or “training.” Keeping our bodies active is the ultimate “survival skill” because it keeps us alive longer, even when there is no external threat involved.
Skill #3: Start being observant
Terrorist attacks on massed civilians - Westgate Mall in Nairobi, the Bataclan Theater in Paris, the Radisson Hotel in Mali - have predominantly been quick, well-planned, blitz-style attacks designed to shock and stampede their targets. There are generally two ways to negate such attacks: countering with overwhelming firepower or getting out of the killing zone quickly. Since you are unlikely to be carrying a company of U.S. Marines in your back pocket, you will be reliant on the second strategy.
You don't need to pretend to be James Bond or to posture like some "Special Operator, operating operationally." You just need to get your head out of your smartphone and be aware of your surroundings. Take the time to see and hear what’s happening around you. Hearing the beginnings of possible trouble keeps you from being caught by surprise when the danger is closer. Already knowing where the exits are saves you the time it takes to find them while being crushed by a fleeing crowd.
When driving, notice when streets are blocked off by special events or clogged by construction. Also make mental note of the last clear side street you passed, in case you have a window of opportunity to backtrack. When walking, pay attention to crowds forming in unusual places, and take the time to look at what’s happening when you hear raised voices, shouts, or screams. When entering any indoor structure, identify the exits, and get a subconscious sense of how many obstacles – including other people - are between you and them. The nearest door may not be the quickest egress, and “employees only” doesn’t apply when you need to run for your life.
In the unlikely chance that something happens, being cognizant of your environment will reduce or remove the delay that comes from mental processing. Don't think, don't freeze, don't deny – move and get out.
Skill #4: Be realistic about guns
Firearms are as misunderstood by many who own them as by those who abhor them, and the technical factors in their use are graphic, unpleasant, and often colored by everything from personal convictions to marketing glossies for the latest “magic ammo of the week.” With the caveat that we are trying to simplify an unbelievably complex topic, read on.
We are not talking about street crime. We are not talking about kidnappers. We are talking about jihadist killers. Those executing these attacks have two goals: 1. to kill as many people as they can, and 2. to die. You will not appeal to their better natures, negotiate your way out, frighten them with talk of repercussions, or form a bond. If, against the odds, you find yourself at the scene of an attack and cannot extract yourself quickly, your choices will be limited to hope for the best or fight for your life.
Reality #1: You are unlikely to win that fight unless you are already armed with a gun.
In the San Bernardino attack, the kill zone was a relatively small room crowded with unsuspecting partygoers. The attack lasted less than four minutes, with two armed attackers killing fourteen and wounding seventeen others in that incredibly brief time.
You would not be able to disarm them with your unarmed ninja skills. You would not be holding any discussions with them, bringing your massive intellect and powers of persuasion into play. You would not have time to improvise a weapon out of a stapler, coffee pot, and/or computer keyboard. You would not have the opportunity to run to the parking lot to get your “zombie apocalypse trunk gun.”
You would have fewer than ten seconds – and only that much if you were on the far side of the mass of other victims - to deploy whatever firearm was on your person at that moment, and return fire.
Reality doesn’t care about your political views, religious belief, or personal aversions. You can choose not to fight. Many people have and managed to survive, though this places your continued existence in the hands of Fate alone. But if you do choose to fight back, know that you will not effectively do so if you do not have a gun in your hand when the shooting starts.
Reality #2: Guns are not magic.
Firearms legend Colonel Jeff Cooper once wrote, “Owning a handgun doesn’t make you armed any more than owning a guitar makes you a musician.” Having a firearm on your person at least gives you a chance to fight back but it is not enough. Range practice where neither you nor your targets are moving is not enough. “If it goes ‘bang,’ it’s probably good enough,” isn’t appropriate criteria for defensive firearm or ammunition selection. You have absolutely no idea how many rounds you will “need.”
This is the reality:
- Your assailants will have the advantage because they planned this out. They will be moving rapidly. They will be shooting at you and everyone around you. They want to sustain the attack as long as possible but don’t actually fear dying – it’s actually their ultimate goal. They may be wearing body armor and certainly won’t call a time out while you reload.
- You will be behind the curve, drawing after the shooting has already started, conscious of not hitting the innocent people between you and your attackers, and – presumably – being somewhat concerned about avoiding death. You will miss more than once. Some of the hits you do make may be ineffective because of inadequate caliber choice, or simply because only a hit to the brain is a guaranteed “off switch.”
If you are serious about carrying a handgun to defend yourself in the event of a San Bernardino-style attack, that gun must be as reliable as mechanically possible. The ammunition you carry needs to be able to penetrate between twelve and eighteen inches in ballistic gel, and should be capable of as much expansion as possible within that depth. You should have as many rounds available as you can reasonably carry.
Most importantly – most importantly - you must be competent, while moving and under stress, with the firearm you choose to carry and able to deploy it in the opening seconds of an attack. At the very least, incorporate movement and atypical positions – lying on your back, crouching, firing with your weak hand only - into your range sessions. Dry-fire from the draw as often as you can, and practice reloading as much as shooting, drawing your spare(s) from wherever you would normally carry them.
Guns are machines, not magic talismans. Their effectiveness is dependent upon the proficiency of the human wielding them.
It’s not just “survival”
The current panic around terrorism may have spurred you to thoughts that would otherwise not have crossed your mind. While we hope the advice we’ve offered allays some of that panic, we also hope you take the opportunity to explore those thoughts - calmly, of course - and perhaps find some room for improvement in your life.
Choosing rational thought over panic; adopting healthy habits and lifestyles; being aware of the world in which we reside; and making realistic and educated choices about how we protect ourselves – these all seem like good options, not just for “surviving” but for living.
We hope you agree.