TCS Daily


'American Dunkirk'

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 13, 2002 12:00 AM

Two weeks ago I wrote about the need to adopt a broader approach to antiterrorism, one that would help the citizenry function as (in Jim Henley's words) "a pack, not a herd." This week I'm going to say a little more about how that should be done, though in truth it's already happening on its own.

In fact, one barely-reported story from September 11 illustrates this better than any other - the improvised navy that evacuated roughly a million people by boat from Lower Manhattan, in an operation that some have called an American Dunkirk. Ferries, commercial boats, and pleasure craft spontaneously assembled to carry people away from the scene of the attack, and to return with needed supplies:


People at Ground Zero, the Manhattan Waterfront, nearby New Jersey, Staten Island and Brooklyn waterfronts, and crews on the numerous vessels repeatedly used the phrases "just amazing," "everyone cooperated, and "just doing what it took" to describe maritime community responses. Individuals stepped up and took charge of specific functions, and captains and crews from other companies took their direction. . . . Private maritime operators kept their vessels onsite and available until Friday, Day Four, when federal authorities took over.


"Day Four, when federal authorities took over." There's a lesson in that phrase, isn't there? This wasn't just an evacuation: it was a whole alternative logistic system, improvised on the fly by people who didn't work for the government. Fuel, water, and food were brought in; when there were problems moving big pieces of steel at the site, the boats brought structural ironworkers from New Jersey along with boots, oxygen and acetylene cylinders, and whatever else was needed. This effort got some coverage at the time, but has largely been forgotten in the aftermath, since ad hoc groups don't have PR agents, or even a motive, to keep their deeds in the public eye. Still, it was one of the most amazing feats of human self-organization ever, and it deserves more attention than it got.

Of course, many of the players in the New York evacuation and supply effort already possessed the technical skills that they needed - it was just a question of applying them to the job at hand. Such might not be the case among a group of ordinary citizens at the scene of another disaster.

But things don't have to be that way. With a modicum of effort, it might well be possible to ensure that people at the scenes of disasters are prepared, and possess the necessary skills for quick action on their own. How? By training them now.

Both the prevention of and the response to terrorism might be handled, at least in part, on a dispersed-among-the-citizenry basis. Prevention could be done by training volunteers to watch for suspicious indications that might warn of terrorism, and perhaps even sharing some intelligence data with select (but large) groups. The September 11 hijackers, and D.C. shooter John Muhammad, displayed lots of warning signs. The problem is that those signs were ignored.

On the response side, there's a lot that citizens could do. Many have suggested encouraging people who are licensed to carry guns to do so, and it's certainly true that armed individuals working for El Al, rather than a law enforcement agency, stopped Mohammed Hadayet's Los Angeles International Airport shooting spree almost as soon as it started. Armed citizens, especially if trained in what to look for, could be a very valuable last line of defense against terrorism. In almost every instance of terrorism, the true first responders will be the people already on the scene. And, as Flight 93's passengers reminded us, that response can be decisive.

In addition, people trained in first aid (especially the specific skills likely to be useful in the aftermath of a terrorist attack), in recognizing the signs of chemical or biological attack, and in various other disaster-recovery skills could contribute a lot. Even in the case of such relatively "mundane" events as truck-bombings and shooting sprees, individuals on the scene will have to wait crucial minutes before aid even begins to arrive.

People should also be encouraged to carry cameras, or video cameras, and use them in the immediate moments after an attack, when they might gather valuable data. Would people remember to use them? Probably. They often take video of disasters anyway, and there's something about a viewfinder that tends to steady the nerves; it wouldn't take much to get people to do that.

One of the lessons that we should take from the D.C. sniper attacks is that even a massive law-enforcement presence can't prevent terror attacks, even when it knows they're about to happen. But an informed and prepared citizenry - which, after all, is what stopped "shoebomber" Richard Reid, helped stop Mohammad Hadayet, and kept Flight 93 from smashing into the Capitol, as well as being what actually caught Muhammad and Malvo - can be everywhere. Because it already is.

 

Categories:

3 Comments

The basic problem with TSA's approach is that they are disarming honest citizens instead of arming them. What we should really do is disband the TSA, and let airlines lend interested passengers an "in-flight gun" (along with rubber bullets) or a tazer, or mace. They could hand them out on boarding. :-) Sure, the terrorists would be armed, and they could take a shot at blowing up the airplane or whatever -- assuming they were still interested at those odds. I think their interest would immediately shift to an easier target. Say, a nuclear power plant or a bridge. The cops can go and guard that kind of stuff.

The basic problem with TSA's approach is that they are disarming honest citizens instead of arming them. What we should really do is disband the TSA, and let airlines lend interested passengers an "in-flight gun" (along with rubber bullets) or a tazer, or mace. They could hand them out on boarding. :-) Sure, the terrorists would be armed, and they could take a shot at blowing up the airplane or whatever -- assuming they were still interested at those odds. I think their interest would immediately shift to an easier target. Say, a nuclear power plant or a bridge. The cops can go and guard that kind of stuff.

The basic problem with TSA's approach is that they are disarming honest citizens instead of arming them. What we should really do is disband the TSA, and let airlines lend interested passengers an "in-flight gun" (along with rubber bullets) or a tazer, or mace. They could hand them out on boarding. :-) Sure, the terrorists would be armed, and they could take a shot at blowing up the airplane or whatever -- assuming they were still interested at those odds. I think their interest would immediately shift to an easier target. Say, a nuclear power plant or a bridge. The cops can go and guard that kind of stuff.

TCS Daily Archives