The case for fighting back against terrorists

by DANIEL HANNAN December 3, 2015

British police have issued advice on what to do if you're caught up in a Paris-style terrorist situation.

Before going any further, I should stress that you are vanishingly unlikely ever to need their advice. I mentioned in this newspaper two weeks ago that we fear terrorism for the same reason that we play the lottery: Our brains are bad at computing probability. On the cold statistics, you're more likely to drown in your bath than to die in a terrorist attack, more likely to be killed by a child than by a jihadi.

Britain's counterterrorism experts may believe that those odds have altered, of course; or they may simply be covering every eventuality. At any rate, the National Police Chiefs Council has decided to tell you that, in the event of a Bataclan-type atrocity, you should run or hide.

If you have a safe exit route, they say, use it. If you haven't, and are obliged to take cover instead, then make sure your mobile phone is silent; remember that bullets can pass through brick, wood and glass; move away from the door; and, when safe, call the police. Don't play dead.

All of which is fair enough. But I wonder whether there isn't a better alternative. Mightn't there be occasions when the less dangerous course of action, if there are enough of you, is to attempt to overpower the gunman? I raise this question with trepidation, having seen what happened to poor Ben Carson when he tried, albeit clumsily, to make a similar point. Obviously running or hiding might sometimes be the correct response, depending on the circumstances of the targets as well as of the perpetrators. Still, isn't it worth at least considering whether fighting back might, in some situations, be the least bad option?

In August, three American travellers overpowered a gunman on the Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris. True, two of them had military training; still, it can surely be argued that by acting as they did, they increased their own chances of survival as well as those of their fellow passengers.

Now, at this stage, you might be saying, "Yeah, Hannan, easy for you to say when you're sitting safe at your computer screen; I'd like to see you in a terrorist situation." Well, none of us knows what we'd do in the event. Still, should the formal advice preclude the possibility of resistance? When we make "run and hide" the official line, we discourage people from aiming at anything else.

In fact, ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Think of 9/11 and of the passengers and flight attendants on Flight 93 who, by overpowering a hijacker, prevented what might have been yet another terrible atrocity. You might make a case that their action was self-interested, in the sense that even the tiniest chance of seizing the cockpit was better than the certainty of death. But, self-interested or not, you can't dispute that it was heroic. The physical bravery of those men and women saved the lives of many others.

Should we as a society formally prefer ducking and diving to such bravery? Should we advise people that even aspiring to be brave is wrong?

A lot of state agencies dislike it when citizens do their jobs for them. Whenever you read about someone, say, overpowering a mugger, you are likely also to find a comment from a local copper saying, "Don't be a have-a-go hero!"

Passivity is becoming our ruling doctrine. Don't rescue someone from drowning - call the authorities. Don't tick off a child misbehaving in the streets - leave it to social services. Don't confront a vandal - wait for the police.

It's never easy to intervene in these situations. At times of high stress, our reflexes take over, and the run-and-hide reflex, in our species, is often stronger than the fight-back reflex. Curiously, we become more passive when in large groups. Simulations with actors show that we are most likely to confront anti-social behavior when we're the only other person in a subway carriage. The more fellow-passengers there are, the less we want to get involved.

Then again, the essence of civilization is that we encourage certain forms of behavior that run against our instincts. Nerving yourself to seize an opportunity to overpower a gunman, however counterintuitive, might sometimes be the right thing to do. Sure, we might not be able to go through with it when the time comes; but that doesn't make it a bad idea.

Daniel Hannan is a British writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.


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