We all ask ourselves, ‘how would I behave in a terror attack?

The head of Maynooth University Department of Anthropology, Mark Maguire, says security on its own isn’t a sufficient response to terror, and explains his research into how we humans react to such incidents    

We all ask ourselves, ‘how would I behave in a terror attack?

AS IMAGES of the explosions in Brussels saturate the media, our thoughts naturally turn to the victims and their families. Coming in the wake of the November attacks in Paris, the images from Brussels suggest a frightening vision of the future. Security and insecurity will surely increase.

But what can we do? What constitutes a measured and effective response?

The Irish Research Council is funding a pilot project, which I co-ordinate, that aims to develop answers to these questions. Resilience and Security Tactics (RESET) aims to better understand the behaviours and responses of members of the public, and emergency responders, during terrorist attacks.

Of course, thankfully, terrorist attacks are rare events and, for countries like Ireland, the threat level is low. That said, EUROPOL, the European police agency, warns that terrorism in Europe is likely to increase in the future.

Recent attacks often show a particular pattern: the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the active shooter attacks in Bataclan are designated as Marauding Terrorist Firearms Attacks (MTFA).

The sickening fact is that the more these attacks happen the more we know about how to react. By looking closely at such attacks, from Norway to Nairobi, we see various motivations, actions and reactions, but we also see some similarities. We are also struck by a simple fact. It takes time before emergency services and armed responders arrive: At least 10 minutes, and in a terrorist attack, even 10 minutes can be an enormous amount of time.

Our research is about the anthropology of 10 minutes. The simple fact is that we know very little about how people behave in that brief but intense period of time.

Security experts and analysts study MTFA and seek to understand the extraordinary violence involved in attacking innocent civilians using, essentially, weapons of war. The impact of a bullet fired from an assault rifle is devastating, and victims will often die from bleeding.

RESET works with St John Ambulance as a partner in order to analyse emergency responder preparedness. We are thinking about potential ways to enhance training and the basic kit available in emergencies. However, when an MTFA occurs, responders face a number of problems.

For example, the area is not yet secured, and the possibility of a secondary attack exists. From a research point of view, then, we must understand what happens before the cavalry arrives. This brings us to human behaviours and responses.

During marauding attacks, people panic, freeze, hide, attempt to save each other, and even behave as “ordinary heroes”. As we watch these kinds of horrific events unfold in the media, who among us hasn’t wondered: How would I behave?

We may wonder, but we also hope that we will never know the answer to that question.

Extreme events such as terrorist attacks also provide a window onto human behaviour under the most extreme circumstances. But, from our pilot study of events such as the Breivik massacre in Norway and the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, it is clear that simple discussions of crowd behaviour are insufficient.

Rather, we note crowd-like behaviour and individuals who break expected baselines; we also see numerous actions and reactions that seem to be culturally coded. Our role as our project continues will be to tease out these issues from available reports, interviewing survivors and responders as appropriate, and running workshops and exercises to gather together a sense of what good practice might be.

It is precisely during the moments in which shocking images of terrorism fill our newspapers and TV screens that we must summon moderation and reason. We should not summon evil demons and permit dangerous reactions that might threaten civil liberties. Terrorism is, after all, the result of human actions and, by focusing on human responses, we can be better prepared and more resilient.

Ireland has a potentially unique role to play here. We are a neutral country, yet our defence forces have carved an international reputation. An Garda Síochána have significant counter-terrorism experience. Memories of attacks still live on in state and non-state services, and the island of Ireland still experiences terrorism.

Graphic shows location of attacks.
Graphic shows location of attacks.

We can gather this expertise together to help better prepare responders and members of the public across Europe. Perhaps the first lesson is that after terrorists strike, we often react through the prism of security services. Our project aims to find ways to put safety first.

Mark Maguire is head of the Maynooth University Department of Anthropology. Resilience and Security Tactics (RESET) is funded by the Irish Research Council

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