We Must Take a Page From Israel and Fight Back During Terror Attacks
The French government has issued a poster designed to prepare its citizens against terrorist attacks. It urges: “escape, hide, alert.”
The City of Houston has issued a video dealing with the same subject. It too advises citizens to escape or hide. But it includes a third imperative: “Run. Hide. Fight.” In one scene, a worker picks up a fire extinguisher, another grabs a chair, and two others hold a belt and a coffee mug. As the shooter begins to enter, the workers attack. The video freezes and the narrator intones: “As a last resort, if your life is at risk, whether you’re alone or working together as a group, fight! Act with aggression. Improvise weapons. Commit to taking the shooter down, no matter what.”
The difference between the two approaches was on display last August during the Thalys train attack in Europe. Three American passengers rose and overpowered the gunman. The French train crew locked themselves in the engine room. The Americans were hailed as heroes, and the French crew criticized as cowards. But they were simply following different approaches.
Fighting back is not always realistic. In San Bernardino, two murderers armed with semiautomatic weapons entered a conference room. Of the 100 attendees, they killed or wounded 35. The attack lasted two minutes. Fighting back was not an option.
But sometimes resistance is possible. In the attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, three gunmen entered a sold-out venue seating 1,500 people. The ratio of potential victims to attackers was over 500 to 1. For two hours, the killers shot, paused, and reloaded. Survivors described them as “calm.” Resistance powered by sheer weight of numbers might have been possible.
Instead of just lighting candles and holding prayer sessions, why not also explore whether the public should consider physical resistance as one response to terrorist attacks?
In some societies, fighting back is expected. In Israel, because of nearly universal military training and the prevalence of guns, many if not most terrorist attacks are stopped by civilians. No terrorist attacking an Israeli target expects to have as much time to calmly reload as the Bataclan concert hall killers did. On the contrary, they know they will be dead soon after they commence their attack.
The Israeli approach is a matter of mindset. Just as the nation expects to fight its wars on its own, Israeli citizens expect to fight terrorists on their own, without immediate assistance from the authorities.
It is no coincidence that the first victim of 9/11 was Danny Lewin, an American-born Israeli aboard American Flight 11. Lewin tried to stop the hijackers. They slashed his throat. But he died fighting, not passively. So did the passengers on United Flight 93. Having heard from cellphone conversations of the jets flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon earlier that morning, they stormed the cockpit and forced the plane to crash into an empty field in Pennsylvania.
We honor men like Danny Lewin and the passengers of United Flight 93. But their actions were not mere machismo. Given their circumstances, they acted rationally. Lewin, a math genius, co-founded Akami Technologies. He might have decided to fight because he understood that it was the only logical course.
Three days after the San Bernardino attack, a man knifed two passengers in the London Underground. More attacks, and more mass killings, are almost a certainty. Given this grim prospect, three measures seem logical.
First, as a society, we should recognize resistance as one possible response to a terrorist attack. That means training ordinary citizens. It means teaching office workers and students, concert goers and diners, how to band together and organize, and how to fashion weapons from whatever objects are at hand.
Second, we should recognize that the responsibility for protecting the citizenry falls upon the citizens themselves, at least initially. The police cannot be everywhere at all times. We the people are the targets in this war, and we the people have a civic duty to learn how to protect ourselves.
Third, and finally, we as a society should honor and ennoble those who fight back, whether they survive or not. Heroes elevate ordinary people. Learning about heroic acts encourages us to believe that we are capable of heroic acts ourselves. In addition to training, in addition to recognizing our responsibility to protect ourselves, we will need courage in the days ahead. Having heroes to admire is one way to generate that courage.