TCS Daily

True National Defense

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 20, 2002 12:00 AM

My earlier columns on citizen defense against terrorism, A Pack, Not a Herd, and American Dunkirk, have led to requests that I write on what, specifically, individual citizens can do to prepare for a role in responding to, and preventing, terrorism. Your wish is my command.

I will say up front, though, that although I'm totally in favor of individual citizens taking the initiative to prepare themselves, such self-help measures would probably do a lot more good if the federal and state governments actually took a role in encouraging and facilitating them. But if they drop the ball, or if you want to get a leg up on the process before the much slower bureaucracy gets rolling, here are a few things you can do to help. The odds are, of course, that you'll never use them, or even come close to needing them, in the face of a terrorist attack. Those are actually pretty rare. But you'll probably never need your smoke detector, either. And, anyway, many of these skills and behaviors may turn out to be useful otherwise.


Where terrorism is concerned, an ounce of prevention is worth a metric ton of cure. But what can you do to prevent terrorism?

Well, you can't intercept Al Qaeda communications (unless you're an unusually skilled cyberwarrior). But experience has demonstrated that terrorists tend to give off warning signals before they strike: They profess sympathy to Al Qaeda (a pretty good giveaway), they make threats, they brag to strippers, and they engage in various other kinds of behaviors that don't add up. In the past, people have failed to report these warning signs for fear of seeming prejudiced. Those days are over, I think, and you should certainly be prepared to report things that seem odd to the authorities, especially as you, unlike the authorities, needn't worry too much about being charged with ethnic profiling. (Whether the authorities will listen or not is another question - they didn't where John Muhammad was concerned - but there's only so much you can do about that).

Aside from reporting any potential terrorists you might run across at strip clubs, you can maintain situational awareness, especially in public places like airports, shopping malls, and so on. Jeff Cooper's book, Principles of Personal Defense, contains a number of games and mental exercises designed to promote that sort of awareness. Short of that, just get into the habit of noticing what's going on around you. Scan for people who look suspicious, or who are acting oddly, unattended bags or packages, and so on. (For practice, try to notice something distinctive about each person you see - a tattoo, a crooked nose, whatever. This will encourage you to really look at people and not just pass your eyes across them.) You should also think about what you'd do if you saw something unusual. Obviously that depends on what you see - if you see a guy pulling out a gun, you're not going to have time to call security, while if you see an unattended package you probably will. But you should know who to call, and what to say, or what to do if there's not time to call anyone. There's no need to get obsessive, but play a few of these scenarios out in your mind from time to time and you'll be ahead of the game if the situation actually comes up.


This brings us to the topic of response. How do you prepare to respond once it's too late to prevent something?

Carrying a cell phone is something anyone can do, and experience ranging from Flight 93 to the recent Moscow theater incident demonstrates that having people on the scene with cell phones is enormously valuable. Be prepared to report what's going on clearly and concisely. Think about what information is valuable to authorities trying to respond - exactly what you're seeing, how many people are in the area, how many terrorists (if any) are present, how they're armed, and so on. (Example: "There are four guys wearing black, they've shot several people and they're carrying AK-47s and pistols"; is a lot more useful than "There are some guys shooting!" or "Help! It's terrorists!")

If you can legally carry a gun, you may want to consider doing so on a regular basis. But remember that there's nothing magical about a gun. If you're going to carry it, you need to be good at hitting what you shoot at, and - just as important - you need to practice in situations that will help you formulate judgment about when and how to shoot. Training courses along these lines are available most places, and if you're planning to carry a gun regularly they're a good idea. (In fact, given the woeful nature of most law enforcement officers' training and practice, if you take one of these courses and practice regularly, you may actually be better prepared than many of the professionals). Of course, there are lots of places where guns aren't allowed - and, not surprisingly, they're often prime terrorist targets. So you may want to brush up on your unarmed-combat skills, too. Courses in those are even more common, and that stuff's good healthy exercise anyway.

Sadly, many terrorist events will involve things that no degree of prior awareness or self-defense skill will do much to prevent. Terrorists, who are not paragons of bravery or fair play, tend to choose methods that are hard to stop by such means: bombs, for example. Unless you spot the bomb or bomber in time for people to be evacuated, you probably won't be able to do much in response to these matters until after it goes off.

That's a reason to brush up on your first aid skills, too. If there's a mass shooting, or if a bomb goes off, help will be on the way within minutes. But "minutes" can be a very long time in the aftermath of a bomb or a shooting. The Red Cross and other organizations offer First Aid courses, though most of them focus more on responding to accidents than in dealing with the massive trauma that often occurs after a terror attack. (It might be a good idea for these courses to be updated.) I once took an advanced course that did cover this sort of thing (along with a lot of other stuff I hope I'll never use, like improvised traction and bone-setting), but those are a bit harder to find. But simply applying direct pressure to wounds and keeping airways clear can go a long way toward keeping someone alive until more advanced help comes.

Getting in the habit of having a video camera or small still camera around can be helpful too. Photos during, or in the immediate aftermath of, a terrorist attack may well reveal useful information, as well as making you a temporary celebrity - and perhaps a few bucks. Just be sure you have film and batteries! (And don't get so interested in taking pictures that you forget to duck.)

And what about your home? The disruptions caused by terrorist attacks tend to be short-lived, but anyone should be ready to live without power, food, or water for at least a few days. Here is the Red Cross list of recommendations for disaster preparedness, which is a good starting point. Gas masks and Geiger counters are, it seems to me, overkill unless you live next to a hazardous waste facility or somesuch, and probably even then. If you disagree, there are lots of places on the Web with advice and merchandise. (My favorite is Cap'n Dave's Survival Center, though I've never actually bought anything from them - I just like the look and feel of their website, which lacks the paranoid style of many survivalist pages.)

These recommendations just scratch the surface, of course, but they should at least point you in the right direction. Many of them will also prove useful even if you never encounter a terrorist, as being aware of your surroundings may save you from being raped or mugged (both more likely, statistically, than terrorism anyway), and having emergency supplies at home will pay off in the event of a blizzard, hurricane, earthquake, or other natural disaster. Perhaps most importantly, if you formulate the habits of mind that will keep you acting - not just reacting in a stunned fashion - in an emergency, you improve your odds in all sorts of unfortunate situations, regardless of whether terrorism is involved. Even before 9/11, it had become obvious that the "leave it to the professionals" approach to safety and security was a bad idea. And that will remain true even after the last Al Qaeda sympathizer is pushing up daisies.

Let's just hope that the government catches on to this, sooner or later, and offers the kind of support that will move these suggestions from the category of "self-help" to the category of "national defense."



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