This is the second in my series of articles on school shootings and how to deal with them. The first is available here. Note that I do not presume to prevent them; that’s plainly impossible for reasons I’ll explain in a article in the near future. However, once a school attack begins, it is indeed possible to stop school shooters, even before they can harm anyone.
This updated article focuses on the realities of the threat we face, not only from domestic killers, adults and juvenile, but Islamist terrorists who have decades of experience at attacking schools around the world.
Terrorists attempting attacks on American soil have, in recent years, had a run of bad luck. An underwear bomber succeeds mainly in torching his “junk” on an airliner; a car bomber is thwarted by an alert citizen in Times Square; would-be bombers are stung by the FBI in Dallas and Baltimore, an Iranian plot to assassinate by explosives the Saudi ambassador in a Washington DC restaurant—also certainly killing many innocents, and on December 11, 2012, a shooter in an Oregon shopping mall killed two shoppers, but immediately after seeing an armed citizen who, fortunately, ignored the gun-free status of the mall pointing a handgun at him, shot and killed himself. No doubt, other plots have been thwarted in earlier stages of execution, plots about which most will never know that the methods and sources of our police and intelligence agencies might be protected, unless the New York Times or similar media vermin get their blood-soaked paws on the information.
But such good fortune has not been universal. During the seven years of the Bush Administration following 9-11, there were no successful terrorist attacks on American soil. In the four years of the Obama Administration, hope and change have produced multiple successful attacks, including the Fort Hood attack, where 12 were killed and 31 injured. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut), commenting on the report on that act of domestic terrorism, observed that it was not only preventable, but was the result of a climate of political correctness. The Obama Administration has responded by issuing orders forbidding anyone to accurately identify our Islamist enemy, for example–to this day–calling the Ft Hood attack “workplace violence” and denying the soldiers wounded Purple Hearts to maintain the fiction the attack was not an act of war perpetrated by a radical Islamist crying “Allahu Akbar” as he fired on the unarmed.
NOTE: It’s little known in the civilian world that the only people allowed to carry firearms on continental US Military bases are generally military police officers. All other military members and civilians working on those installations are unarmed unless their immediate duties call for carrying weapons, thus making that attack possible. Our own Continental US military installations–and many overseas–are essentially “gun free” zones.
Iran—the word’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism–is establishing Latin American alliances and even missile bases in Venezuela. Despite the obvious threat and blatant challenge to the Monroe Doctrine, the Obama Administration is apparently doing nothing to address this threat, and is, in fact, dramatically cutting the defense budget and focusing our military on the Pacific region.
Despite claiming that he has Israel’s back, Mr. Obama’s serial insults of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his fawning appeasement of Iran as it works to obtain nuclear weapons have made it a virtual certainty that Israel will have to act alone to hinder Iran’s nuclear ambitions. When—not if—that occurs, the worldwide unleashing of Iranian proxy terrorist assets is a foregone conclusion. The wave of the future will almost certainly be terrorist attacks on American soil (such as the narrowly thwarted bombing attack in a DC restaurant). Due to misplaced, misinformed good intentions and political correctness run amok, America is particularly vulnerable.
Consider the case of obscure Florida minister Terry Jones—leader of a small flock– who burned a Koran in early April, 2011. Around the world, a few days later, Afghan President Hamid Karzai decried the burning and his citizens went berserk, attacking a UN compound and killing seven UN workers, as many as five fellow Afghan Muslims, and injuring 20 or more. In response, Senator Lindsay Graham was upset that he could not punish the pastor or anyone who would burn a Koran. President Obama likewise “deplored” the Koran burning, but also got around to expressing his disapproval of those who killed innocents.
While the Florida pastor is certainly unwise, and politicized book burning is the act of a Luddite, the politically correct response, by an American senator and the President–among many others–should give us all pause. There is no moral equivalence between burning a book and the brutal murder of innocents, none. It is particularly ironic that one of those killed was a 33 year old Swede who, according to media accounts, “worked for human rights.” That the default position of so many of our civic “leaders” is to blame anyone but those responsible for inhuman crimes is a symptom of a dangerous strain of emotionalism and illogic abroad in contemporary America, of political correctness elevated above all else.
Consider too the Benghazi affair. Not only did the President lie to the American people for weeks, claiming the terrorist murders of our ambassador and other brave Americans were the result of a spontaneous protest about a video trailer few, if any, had seen, but he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton all but threw the First Amendment overboard and continue, to this day, to stonewall the truth. Even so, it is clear that Islamic terrorism is far from defeated.
Many Americans give lip service to the idea that everything changed on September 11, 2001 when Islamic terrorists brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. For our schools, however, that process of change began on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado. Unfortunately, far too many–particularly educators–have learned the wrong lessons or merely reinforced unthinking, ineffective prejudices.
School shootings and terrorist attacks on schools are notorious primarily because they are relatively rare. Students are, statistically, more likely to be killed in an automobile accident, struck by lightning or hit by a meteor than to be involved in a Columbine, Virginia Tech or Beslan-like attack. That is the good news.
The bad news is that intelligence agencies have, for some time, been developing information that indicates that terrorists intend to strike soft targets in America in the same ways that they have struck soft targets in other nations. And even if such intelligence did not exist, it wouldn’t take Nostradamus to forecast the likelihood of such attacks. Terrorists know that it will be difficult to again turn an American airliner into a flying bomb, so they have resorted to tactics such as suicide bombers wearing binary liquid or semi-liquid explosives. The recent Russian sale to Venezuela of advanced, easily man-portable shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles has opened up another possible avenue of attack, particularly since intelligence is also indicating that terrorists have been–and almost certainly are–entering America over our porous southern border. Of course, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano continues to claim the situation on the border is better than ever, even as more weapons relating to the ATF and Fast and Furious are found at the scene of the murder of a Mexican beauty queen. Thus, under the Obama Administration, is the future apparently to be won by leading from behind.
Mass, coordinated attacks originating from abroad are always possible, but perhaps the greatest current danger comes from homegrown jihadists who do not have consistent, operational ties to foreign terror masters. Such neophyte jihadists have, to date, often made mistakes that have allowed law enforcement to intercept them, but as has already been noted, not every one of them has been so careless, and many will not be so careless in the future.
UPDATE: 04-27-13, 2100 CST: The Boston Marathon bombing is a case in point.
It has been often and accurately noted that in the terror war, we not only have to be very, very good, we have to be lucky 100% of the time. Any given terrorist has to be lucky only once to do damage far beyond the localized destruction of their attack.
An allied danger is the disaffected citizen or citizens who, for whatever reason, decide to attack innocents and go out in a blaze of deranged glory, the Columbine killers, the Virginia Tech killer and the Newtown, Connecticut killer–who would certainly have liked me to mention their names–being only three examples. For such killers, attacking undefended, soft targets like shopping malls, churches, theaters and schools will almost certainly become much more attractive. Unlike plots involving substantial amounts of explosives or other military ordinance, such attacks require nothing more than a few pockets-full of ammunition and commonly available, non-military (not fully-automatic) firearms. Such plots involving only one or two killers, particularly if they are closed-mouthed, are virtually impossible to intercept and prevent.
Due to an unfortunate and outdated mix of social, academic and legal factors, schools are uniquely vulnerable to attack. The feel-good trend of the 80s and 90s to declare school zones “gun free,” to “make a statement,” may have impressed those who believe that statement-making is a good in and of itself and would doubtless have unjustifiably raised their self-esteem to stratospheric heights. However such high-minded but feckless statement-making has not served to provoke good will in those who have attacked schools nor will it cause those currently looking for a soft target to engage in enlightened soul-searching.
For most schools that have considered the possibility of such attacks (many have not), response to an armed attack reflects the thinking of Larry Banaszk, Chief of Police at Otterbein University whose program for dealing with armed school attacks was outlined in the first article of this series. It primarily amounts to little more than running and hiding, locking classroom doors, and reminiscent of early Cold War duck-and-cover drills, overturning and hiding behind desks, relying on 3/4” particle board desktops for protection from bullets and bombs. Doors and desks don’t provide effective protection from either. Only coldly sober, rational tactical thinking, planning and action can prevent or ameliorate terrorist attacks. Hiding, particularly hiding poorly, provides no real protection, only potentially buying seconds or minutes of life until the killer finds those cowering unfortunates.
Sadly, tactical thinking remains off the radar of most politicians and educators, and only recently has any tactical thinking gone into the design and construction of school facilities. In fact, the very nature of fire codes—to say nothing of the architectural conventions of American schools—serve to defeat even the most earnest efforts to create more secure schools.
Some schools have begun to install magnetic door locks that open only by means of coded identification cards, but place the readers—which can be defeated by tech-savvy, determined people—next to doors, and windows which are—of course—common plate glass, easily broken by hammer, rock or rifle butt, to say nothing of simply shooting out the glass, as the Newtown killer did. And even if this were not so, fire codes universally require exterior school doors—and not a few interior doors—to have panic bars so kids can’t be accidently locked in a school in case of fire. This is a happy circumstance for school shooters who merely have to break a pane of glass, reach in and press a panic bar to enter. Breaking a bit of glass is not likely to give someone planning the mass murder of children pause. Even if a school spends an enormous amount of money for reinforced doors and bullet resistant glass or advanced polymer windows, a killer can defeat them with a crowbar or simply by driving a vehicle through them.
Attacks by “active shooters,” whether Islamist terrorists or non-ideological, domestic juveniles or adults, have many elements in common. All have missions in mind, and for most, survival is decidedly secondary. Most expect to die, either through suicide or by means of the police (forcing the police to shoot them, AKA “suicide by cop”). Both types have no interest in negotiation, and on the rare occasions when they speak to the police at all, it is merely a means of obtaining greater publicity or playing for more time to rape, torture and kill helpless victims. Both care about police intervention only because the police might interfere with their plans. Because they must behave in legally proscribed, predictable ways, the police do not and cannot deter such people. Unlike common criminals, they have no reluctance in killing police officers. They plan their attacks with the goal of causing the maximum damage–usually in loss of innocent lives– in the shortest time, which tends to produce the most and most lasting publicity and/or the greatest glory for their cause and themselves in whatever hellish afterlife they covet.
At the Virginia Tech attack in April of 2007, the killer, pausing after two initial murders, prepared and mailed a package of video, writings and photographs to NBC, which copied everything before bothering to call the police to turn over the originals, and blitzed the airwaves for days with the killer’s lunatic pronouncements. In short, the media gave him exactly what he wanted. In arrogantly and mindlessly defending their actions, NBC made clear to any and all future killers that their insane manifestos would receive a similarly warm welcome from the media. This was surely not lost on those considering similar atrocities.
LESSONS: All active shooter threats, regardless of ideology or motivation, are deadly dangerous. It must now be assumed that those attacking schools will not behave as common criminals, won’t play by the rules of the criminal justice system, do not intend to survive and will kill as many innocents as possible as quickly as possible. Negotiation is almost certainly futile; most won’t bother to answer–if they’re not dead by their own hands before the police arrive. The press will be on the side of domestic shooters and Islamist terrorists in their publicity seeking desires.
The Columbine killers tried to kill as many teachers and students (15) as possible before they were stopped. Considering the many hours afforded them by the police, it is amazing that hundreds weren’t killed. The police were ineffective because they relied upon an outdated response model that assumed that the attackers were common criminals, wanted to negotiate, and that time was on the side of the police. A school liaison officer did trade a few rounds of gunfire with the shooters early in the attack, but quickly withdrew, doing as he had been taught: contain and control, let the professionals–Special Weapons and Tactics–handle it.
By the time a SWAT team assembled, organized and entered the building, the murderers had already killed their classmates and themselves, and a wounded teacher who might have been saved slowly bled to death over the course of many hours. The Columbine killers brought a crude propane tank bomb, hoping to set off an explosion that would kill scores, but were not able to detonate it.
Consider that the killers at Columbine were not trained, fanatic, religiously motivated terrorists with military weapons, but two sociopathic teenagers employing common. unremarkable weapons. They lacked the ideology, technical knowledge and tactical skill to be truly effective, yet still managed to cause substantial damage.
The Newtown killer was also not a trained fanatic, nor was he an apparently religiously motivated terrorist with political motivations. He employed commonly available, unremarkable weapons, but because no one was able to oppose him, and because he chose to kill Kindergarten aged children, he was able to cause horrific damage in a short time (only five minutes from shooting his way into the school to shooting himself) before killing himself. No mass rush at the killer was possible, and the school’s female principal, who bravely did try to assault the killer, paid with her life. Unfortunately, it took the police 20 minutes to respond, which was much more rapid than at Columbine, but longer than at Virginia Tech.
The Virginia Tech killer, who chained shut doors to keep victims in and the police out, also had more than enough time to kill 32 innocents before killing himself. He was armed only with two common handguns, including one of only .22LR caliber like the Chardon, OH killer. The response of the police at Virginia Tech was many times faster than the Columbine response, yet like the police at Columbine they had no role in stopping the murderer, and their faster response mattered not at all to the victims or their families. In fact, the numbers of cases where the police have had any actual role in stopping an active shooter are vanishingly small.
LESSON: In order to save lives, attackers must be immediately engaged and neutralized. Time is not on the side of the authorities and is absolutely not on the side of the victims. By the time a SWAT team–even if one is available–can be mobilized, arrive and formulate a plan, their only useful task will almost certainly be in helping to remove the dead and dying.
The 9-11 terrorists had no short-term goals save killing as many Americans as possible. There were no demands, no negotiations, nothing to contain or control. It was the passengers of Flight 93, the airliner the terrorists intended to crash into the White House or Congress, alerted by cell phone to the terrorist’s intentions, who changed the response model independently of the authorities. Crying “let’s roll,” they overwhelmed the terrorists, forcing the plane to crash in a Pennsylvania field, far short of the terrorist’s target. Terrorists now know that American airline passengers will not meekly wait for the authorities to save them. As positive as this development is, it tends to focus terrorists on softer targets.
Few are as soft as schools, as the world learned at Beslan, North Ossetia-Alainia, Russia during several days that began on September 01, 2004 when Islamic terrorists blew up a school, killing more than three hundred and wounding hundreds more as the culmination of three days of rape, torture and murder. This tactic should not have been a surprise, and would not have been a surprise had the mainstream media honestly done its job in the past. Israel has suffered the threat and reality of terrorist attacks on schools for decades. These attacks have been, at best, underreported in the American media, but one particular aspect of these attacks, and the most effective response to them–in Israel and potentially in America–has been ignored, even suppressed by the MSM: the use of firearms by school staff to deter and stop school attacks.
LESSON: Terrorists have been attacking schools and students, throughout the world, for decades. Domestic active shooters have been doing the same in America for decades. The threat is real and is already present. What is new is the potential for an escalation in the number of attacks and in their deadliness.
Living with terrorism in a way that is, for the moment, foreign to Americans, the Israelis have adopted practical responses to terror. For decades, Israeli teachers have been armed, even with true assault rifles (there is no such thing as an “assault weapon,” which is an anti-gun/MSM invention) and submachine guns, changing soft targets to hard targets, deterring attacks and preventing or minimizing the loss of life when attacks occur. As a result, school attacks are rare indeed.
A January 25, 2008 attack on an Israeli High School by two armed terrorists ended with several injured students and only slight wounds to the two school counselors who used their handguns to quickly kill the terrorists. That’s right: two armed school counselors protected their own lives and the lives of their students. They were not police officers, commandos or action heroes, but school counselors. This story received scant attention in the American press, which continues to downplay or ignore Israeli, and many similar American, success stories, and routinely ignores the one to two million (or more) times each year that honest citizens use firearms to stop criminal assault, usually without firing a shot.
Even the anti-gun Clinton Administration embarked on a study in 1997, attempting to debunk the millions of uses of firearms in self-defense each year. They planned to use what they assumed they would find in support of even more stringent gun control measures, but were forced to admit that Americans use firearms for self-defense as often as 1.5 million times a year. With the help of a compliant media, they buried the results as quickly as possible.
In Pearl, Mississippi on October 01, 1997, a crazed adolescent armed with a rifle shot nine students, killing two and wounding seven. Who has heard of Assistant Principal Joel Myrick who stopped the rampage, saving untold lives? Virtually no one, because he used a gun to overcome the shooter. Myrick ran a quarter of a mile to his car, which was parked off school property to comply with the federal law then in force (but since overturned) prohibiting firearms within 1000 feet of a school. Retrieving his handgun, he ran back to the school and confronted the shooter, disarming him and holding him for police. Media accounts, when they mentioned Myrick, virtually all failed to mention the presence and role of his handgun.
On January 16, 2002 at the Appalachian Law School in Grundy, Virginia, a crazed student went on a shooting rampage, killing three and wounding three. He was stopped by two fellow students, Mikael Gross and Tracy Bridges, who ran to their cars to retrieve their handguns. At gunpoint, they ended his killing and held him for police.
Dr. John Lott, in his book The Bias Against Guns, recounts how he conducted a Lexis/Nexus search (a specialized search engine service that retrieves stories from media sources) of the news stories surrounding this event. Of 208 news stories throughout the nation in the week following the attack, only four mentioned the attack was stopped with the use of firearms. Only two reported that Gross and Bridges actually pointed their guns at the shooter. In his book, Arrogance, former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg wrote of his surprise, upon reading Lott’s research into the incident, that the MSM would leave out such a noteworthy and essential detail. Conducting his own research, he discovered that Lott was correct. Goldberg wrote:
Only a tiny handful of reporters in the entire country were willing to report an essential part of the story: that it wasn’t just the killer who used a gun on campus that day, but two of the rescuers too.
Considering media treatment of the issue, it is hardly surprising that so many Americans buy into the false and deadly promise of safety of the “gun-free school zone.” It is equally unsurprising that most Americans do not recognize the very real threat of school attacks by terrorists, foreign and domestic. In the three most deadly American school attacks of the modern era–Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown–the police had no role in ending the killing, another fact, which has gone unmentioned by the media. For school attacks, this is overwhelmingly the rule, not the exception.
LESSON: If the goal is saving lives–and where school children are involved, what more important goal exists–force must be met, immediately, with equal or greater counter-force. The police virtually never arrive in time to make a difference.
Please keep in mind that I am not denigrating the police. I was a police officer for nearly two decades. That is why I understand the reality of police response time. The police love to catch dangerous criminals in the act. It’s what they live for, but in the real world, unlike television, catching bad guys in the act or preventing their crimes is uncommon precisely because most bad guys take pains to avoid being caught and because there are, relative to the size of any community, few police officers. The chance of a police officer being close enough to a school to prevent the injury or death of students or staff when a school shooting occurs is remote indeed.
In the remaining installments of this series, I’ll elaborate on the difficulties the police face in responding to active shooters, and on the realities of time and distance that frustrate their response. I’ll also propose a means to harden schools, and address the arguments for and against that proposal. I hope to see you here again on December 27 for the next article.