Despite all the positive remarks by politicians and others about the bravery of those who tackled Usman Khan on London Bridge on November 29, police have not been as congratulatory, mainly because bystanders attacking an attacker is contrary to Metropolitan Police advice about what members of the public should do in response to a terrorist attack.
The reality is that it is not a good idea to run towards a threat to become a hero, obtain video footage, impress your friends and relatives, appear on TV as an eyewitness, or improve your job prospects. Or even to do it for entirely selfless reasons.
In some circumstances, the public being drawn to an incident could result in a lot more casualties. For example, if it was an active shooter attack, if the attacker was wearing a real explosive vest, if there were multiple attackers, or if there was a vehicle bomb.
Public involvement also makes it more difficult for armed police to identify the attacker, and may limit their response options. At London Bridge, armed police were on the scene within minutes to contain the incident and establish whether there were other attackers, or whether explosives had been planted in the area.
British civilians are therefore urged to "Run, Hide and Tell". This is a simple technique used for public security in the UK in the event of a firearms or weapons-based terrorist attack. It was introduced by the Metropolitan Police in 2017, and has been widely adopted elsewhere.
The three elements of the Met advice are:
- Run to a place of safety.
- Hide, rather than confront. Remember to turn your phone to silent and turn off vibrate. Barricade yourself in if you can.
- Tell the police by calling 999 (the number is 000 in Australia - Millennials who watch too much American TV often call 911).
The US of course has a major problem with violent incidents involving firearms, so even in primary school children are taught the basic lessons of "Run, Hide, Fight."
However, "Fight" is listed as an absolute last resort. If they have to fight, students are told: "Commit to your actions and act as aggressively as possible against the shooter. Recruit others to ambush the shooter with makeshift weapons like chairs, fire extinguishers, scissors, books, etc. Be prepared to cause severe or lethal injury to the shooter. Throw items and improvise weapons to distract and disarm the shooter."
The Australian advice is: "Escape. Hide. Tell."
- Escape: move quickly and quietly away from danger, but only if it is safe to do so.
- Hide: stay out of sight and silence your mobile phone.
- Tell: call the police by dialling Triple Zero (000) when it is safe to do so.
This is essentially the same as the Met model. More details about response options are accessible at the Australian National Security website under the heading "In the event of an attack, what you do matters".
Australians are actually far more at risk when they go overseas. Since the September 11 attacks in 2001, most of the Australians killed in terrorist attacks have died overseas - and most of those in Indonesia.
Situational awareness is an important factor in surviving an attack in a public place, which means that Australians travelling overseas should look at the DFAT/ASIO Smartraveller website before departing, and always be aware of their surroundings.
It's also worth mentioning the fight or flight response. This is a physiological reaction that occurs in animals, including humans, in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. The Walter Bradford Cannon Theory states that in such circumstances animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, preparing the animal for fighting or fleeing. But most animals will only fight if fleeing is not an option.
There are of course times when one has no option but to fight. For example, passengers on the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11 knew (from phone calls about the crashed hijacked planes) that they were going to die if they didn't do something. Regrettably, they were not successful in regaining control of the aircraft, and they died along with the hijackers when the plane crashed in Pennsylvania.
Nevertheless, but for their fight response, the plane could have killed a lot more people if it had reached its intended target - one of Washington's landmark buildings.
- Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law.