Nightclubs: Soft Targets for Terrorists

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In an attack reminiscent of the Orlando terror event last year, a popular nightclub became a slaughterhouse on New Year’s Eve when a gunman caused 39 deaths and about 70 injured. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the incident.

As a physician, my focus is how to heal wounds, not how to cause them. A terrorist, however, has quite different goals. Normally, they have a short window of opportunity, and their focus is to cause as many casualties as possible during their brief (hopefully) remaining time on Earth.

I’ve been asked quite a bit lately about what to do in active shooter situations. My standard answer has been the same as that given by the Department of Homeland Security: Run, Hide, Fight, in that order.

Just as “Stop, Drop, and Roll” may save the life of someone on fire, “Run, Hide, Fight” may save the life of someone under fire. This is the order of the actions that I have recommended in past articles regarding active shooter situations.

This sequence of actions is based upon the expected lifespan of the attack, and the attacker, in an active shooter event. Most active shooter events are over in a few minutes. Following the Run, then Hide, then Fight paradigm is often effective in these short-term events.

When potential victims put distance between themselves and the shooter by running, they make themselves a more difficult target than someone laying on the ground two feet in front of the gunman. When targets remove themselves from the line of sight of a shooter by hiding in a different room, preferably with a barrier against the door, the gunman may, knowing his time is short, search for easier victims. Fighting back is recommended as a last resort; it’s a superior strategy to closing your eyes and taking a bullet to the head.

Yet, places like the Turkish nightclub remain soft targets for terrorists. The Orlando nightclub shooting last June took a full three hours before the threat was neutralized. This amount of time gave the gunman ample time to seek out people that were hiding, often in bathroom stalls. In Turkey, most just hid under tables in the same room as the gunman.

I have seen accounts of brave individuals helping people out of the Orlando building, which certainly saved lives, but I have yet to see any 9/11 Flight 93 “let’s roll” moments which indicated that some of the bar’s patrons tried to stop the killing by dropping the attacker. It doesn’t appear that the terror event in Turkey was any different.

This disturbs me, as it is thought that the gunman fired off 200 rounds in Orlando; you would think that, with a hundred casualties, a similar number were fired in Istanbul. No ordinary rifle can fire 200 rounds in one magazine. Therefore, these events required reloading magazines into the rifle multiple times. A number of opportunities to intervene in the killing and end the event probably existed. Such intervention didn’t occur, however, and ISIS can chalk the Turkey attack up as another “success”.

I mentioned in my July 2nd, 2016 article that the Orlando nightclub shooting may serve as a blueprint for future attacks. A nightclub in the middle of the night is crowded, with most of the patrons in one large room. There’s a lot of noise, so it might not be clear that a “bang” represents gunfire. After a few drinks, few will have the good judgment to make the right choice when confronted. The venue represents the softest of targets with the potential for many casualties.

What to do? If there’s an exit to run through, it’s still the best option, in my opinion. Always be situationally aware and mentally mark where those exits are anytime you’re in a crowd, but is hiding (in plain sight) under a table near the gunman the next best thing? If someone was given three hours (the length of the event in Orlando) to find you in your house or your place of work, what do you think of their chances? Pretty good, I’d say.

This leads me to think that, in the Istanbul and Orlando shootings, fighting back would have cut down significantly on the casualties. Why did some of the hundreds of young and able people in the bar not pursue that option? It’s not as if the objectives of the gunmen wasn’t clear.

It all comes down to the natural paralysis that occurs when something happens foreign to the average person’s thought process. We are all victims of normalcy bias: that is, we believe the events of the day will follow a certain pattern, because they always have. When this pattern is broken by an atrocity, the human brain processes it slowly; denial and hesitation makes for a soft target. Certainly, becoming violent is not part of the mindset of the average person in most scenarios.

Yet, there are circumstances when violence is the answer. Statistics published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin indicate a significant minority of attacks which ended before law enforcement arrived were aborted by a single citizen without a firearm. In fewer instances, a firearm-carrying citizen terminated the event and, in other cases, the shooter terminated himself or law enforcement arrived to do him (and us) the favor.

I’m not saying that it’s a great idea for several hundred bar-goers to be carrying loaded weapons, but an unarmed citizen can still make a difference. The patrons of the nightclubs where the shootings occur were, indeed, armed. There were bar glasses, bottles, and hundreds of cell phones that could have been used as projectiles to hurl at the gunman, while a number charged the attacker from different directions to drop him to the ground and grab his weapon.

These assassins weren’t James Bond or Navy Seals. They would have been disconcerted by multiple attackers and thrown objects. They would have ducked and flinched, and would have had to make decisions as to who to shoot. I’m not saying that someone might not have been killed attacking the gunman, but the fatalities would have been held to a minimum and the event would have ended with far less loss of life.

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A faulty strategy doomed to failure? Well, three unarmed men were able to stop a shooter on a train in Paris in 2015 without any fatalities. It may be extreme, but sometimes violence is necessary to prevent worse violence.

I recently saw a video of lions taking down a water buffalo. A few other water buffalo charged the lions, flipping one high into the air and ending the attack. When a herd takes action, the prey has a good chance of surviving.

It’s time for us to decide that we are not going to be soft targets for these mass murderers. It’ll take a major change in mindset to do it, but it might just save some lives in the end. Your life. The lives of friends and loved ones. Prepare physically and mentally to both avoid and confront these situations with commitment, and we might see a little more reluctance on the part of those who wish harm to decent people.

Joe Alton, MD

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