Would I demonstrate grace under pressure if I found myself in the midst of a terrorist attack? I like to hope for the best, even while suspecting that a cowardly vacuum gapes where a heart of oak should pound.
As a journalist, I have reported from the scenes of several terror attacks. In Nice and Paris, I noted the speed of normality’s return. On the beaches of Sousse, I marvelled at holidaymakers who took to their sunbeds in defiance of the horror. In Nairobi, where gunmen had picked off shoppers at the Westgate Mall, I heeded the advice of experts and planned escape routes in enclosed spaces.
As the terrorists have grown more ruthless, so the advice to those left to their untender mercies has grown more realistic. Sheepish compliance is no longer an option when those wielding weapons have shown a nihilistic determination not to negotiate. Our government now says we should run and hide because putting hands in the air only invites a bullet.
But are we still too supine? I think back to the assault on Glasgow airport, where I reported from in 2007. John Smeaton, a baggage handler, took on the terrorists. He was later awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal. On the Thalys train, which I sometimes took when living in Brussels, a gunman sought to rampage through the carriages in 2015 until passengers intervened. The “have-a-go heroes” in that instance were US servicemen, whose training probably gave them an edge.
Does this mean countries with more people under arms are likely to be better able to resist terrorism? Do Western nations, whose citizens no longer perform national service, need to think harder about how they can cultivate collective resistance in the face of a death cult? In short, do countries like ours need a “martial plan” to transform innocent civilians into paragons of self-defence?
It’s a scary thought, although not an abstract one. We already know what such societies, stretched to the limit, might look like. On my first visit to Israel I was struck, as many are, by the sight of men and women with M16s slung over their shoulders. Attacks against the public with cars and knives, like the one we saw in Westminster last week, are not new to cities like Jerusalem. The assailants are often incapacitated before the arrival of police.
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