Knowing how we ‘feel’ about terrorism is not the same as knowing what to do in the event of an attack

How best to respond to terrorism represents a complex challenge. Generalising or glossing over those aspects known to be particularly difficult has been criticised by some as morally objectionable. At a more fundamental level, and despite recent well-intentioned initiatives from government, questions remain about how adequately school students are being equipped to react if the unthinkable happens to them?

Recent publications and campaigns concerning what to do if confronted by marauding terrorists such as Run-Hide-Tell (a message delivered in America as Run-Hide-Fight) invariably raise thoughtful questions amongst the students I meet. What do you do when running isn’t an option, when hiding isn’t feasible and telling cannot guarantee rapid resolution (however gallant and prompt responders may be)? Here, it is informative to consider examples from recent history. At the Bataclan nightclub incident in Paris (November 2015), some who hid, or did not run far enough, were shot. On the Thalys train (August 2015), those who had nowhere to ‘run and hide’ overpowered the armed attacker, and survived. To truly aid decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, a deeper understanding of available options — and attendant limitations — is essential.

In late 2015, I spoke to a sixth-form group in the wake of the Paris attacks. Much time was spent discussing the benefits of running-away, not standing with a ‘selfie’-taking crowd and of having a plan for maintaining (or re-establishing) contact with friends and family. This prompted questions including:

  • how far to run?
  • what if a companion couldn’t or wouldn’t run?
  • what if a terrorist shouted at you to stop running?
  • what if shots could be heard but not seen?
  • and, as noted recently in London’s Oxford Street (a false alarm that led to panic in the street), what if people were running but it was not obvious why?
    On Bastille Day, 2016, two of the girls to whom I spoke were in Nice. As the moving vehicle attack commenced, they were on the boulevard where 86 people would be murdered.

Having already considered what risk-taking and survival meant to them, they ran: without hesitation, without doubt but with acute awareness of what was needed to make the best of a bad situation. They kept running and survived. As sensible and resourceful young women, this would probably have been their priority in any case. However, in extreme circumstances, people can be unsure about how to react, simply follow the crowd or submit to debilitating decision inertia – the failure to recognise existing experience has just been overtaken by events. Those able to process information rapidly, and act accordingly, will therefore possess a distinct advantage when vital decisions need to be made.

When considering what we tell those with enquiring minds, and to what ends, we have a duty to expose terrorism-related risks comprehensively. Developing hypotheticals, as described above, allows concerns to be addressed coherently; even when the problems under consideration are subject to differing world views.

In terms of unexpected exposure to terrorism, circumventing questions because the answers are unpalatable is neither credible nor morally defensible … and ultimately, it risks placing young people at a serious disadvantage when it matters most.


Adrian Dwyer OBE MSc PhD MInstRE MIExpE

Adrian is a former bomb disposal officer. His PhD thesis considered how perceptions of risk influence decision-making. He has had a close association with independent education since the 1980s and writes on a number of terrorism-related topics.

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