With the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish deli in Paris, the inheritors of the benefits of the enlightenment in one of the seats of western civilization have been, reluctantly, forced to reconsider our glaring vulnerability to asymmetric tactics. All open societies are particularly vulnerable, but in the age of Obama, where illegal entry into the nation is not only ignored, but encouraged, and where the National Command Authority not only refuses to name our intractable enemy, but embraces the foremost state sponsor of Islamist terrorism, it’s only a matter of time before the most horrific forms of terror are visited on us, and in large numbers . . .
Islamists have, for decades, understood the horror of attacks on schools and children. They don’t value the lives of children, except when taking them as props in their jihadist terror theater. While we haven’t had a major terror attack since 9-11, we have experienced a steady number of smaller, less destructive attacks, and that tide will soon turn toward attacks on schools.
What would provoke greater fear and revulsion? Where is there a softer target that offers hundreds, even thousands of helpless victims? What, in 2015 America, do we defend less and where else do we advertise the helplessness of potential victims as with gun-free school zone signs? Where else can so few kill so many so quickly without fear of (immediate) resistance?
In a recent article, It’s Happened Before, It Will Happen Again, I wrote a fictional account of a school attack. Circa 2015, most school administrators and school boards in American continue to refuse to allow willing, qualified teachers and staff to carry concealed handguns to preserve their lives and the lives of the children under their care. Fortunately, such attacks remain rare, but even such anti-gun legislators as Senator Diane Feinstein have recently admitted that there are terrorist sleeper cells in America. Innumerable terrorists, many identified with specific terror organizations such as ISIS, have been caught sneaking across our southern border. They are not here to sell Girl Scout cookies.
With that in mind, consider that the odds have fallen against you and the worst-case scenario has come to pass. A small group of terrorists has attacked the elementary school where your daughter is in third grade. Because your daughter’s teachers are unarmed, there was no deterrence, and no chance the attack will be stopped before lives are lost. It will take a very long time, each minute potentially costing innocent lives, before the police can respond. Who, exactly, will be responding? Does your daughter have a chance?
If you are like most Americans, you are served by a local, municipal police department, and secondarily, by the Sheriff’s office in the county where you reside. Both agencies are always understaffed—sometimes badly–and are able to field barely enough officers to cover the streets on a daily basis. Both agencies employ the usual mix of experienced, seasoned officers and new, learning officers, along with everything in between. Virtually every community is served by the state highway patrol, but a single officer commonly covers 200 square miles or more of territory and works — on paper — only eight hours a day. An HP officer might be available within a reasonable amount of time, but it’s not a good idea to count on it.
Terrorists will attack during the day when school is in session. Your daughter’s situation is desperate from the start because law enforcement agencies assign most officers when they are most needed: the afternoon and midnight shifts. Few are on the street during the day. There will be administrators and detectives working at police headquarters, but it will take them longer to respond to any emergency.
Chances are there will be no SWAT team of any kind — that’s the case in much of American — but if there is, it will almost certainly not be a full-time, dedicated team of officers whose primary or only duty is to train and operate as a SWAT team. Such teams exist only in a few major cities.
If there is a SWAT team, it will probably be staffed with a combination of local police officers and sheriff’s deputies. This not only lessens, or at least spreads the liability for each unit of government, it theoretically provides a broader base of experience and ability from which to choose team members. It also lessens the significant costs to each agency of equipping, training and maintaining a team, which costs, for most small to medium-sized agencies, are prohibitive. However, it also inevitably causes problems: who commands the team? Who are the sub-team leaders? How many from each agency are selected for the team? How are the financial burdens divided?
The selection of top tier teams like SEAL Team 6, Delta, the SAS and the FBI HRT is extraordinarily rigorous, and candidates are as likely to be rejected for psychological as physical issues. Selection for the local SWAT team is an entirely different matter. In some cases, officers with a reputation for aggression rather than calm deliberation and accurate judgment are preferred. Personal relationships and local politics often count for more than competence, ability and experience. For decades, relatively few police officers had military experience, fewer, combat experience. Due to 9-11 and the conflicts that followed there are more combat vets in police uniforms, but that doesn’t mean local agencies recognize or take advantage of their experience and training.
It’s not unusual to find a man who has gone through hundreds of doors in combat manning the farthest reaches of a loose perimeter, or making coffee and donut runs for a “command post.” One local team familiar to me chose as its designated sniper a detective whose only experience with firearms was his department-issued handgun, which he virtually never carried off-duty. He had never before owned or fired a rifle. There were far more experienced and capable people available.
Ideally, those with the most experience and ability should be assigned as trainers, supervisors and leaders. Practically, those positions will be given to people holding them in their daily work. Firearm trainers, first line supervisors, and administrators will be given positions at the same levels in the SWAT team. Sometimes this is not a serious problem. More often, it is.
The training the team receives will be sporadic and brief. Training an entire SWAT team is very expensive and time-consuming. Either experts are brought in, or entire teams are sent to them. Officers must be removed from their regular duties and overtime authorized for others to replace them, which stresses those replacement officers and lessens their readiness and performance. As a result, in a given year, the team available to save your daughter will probably have trained together only a day, perhaps two, at most. The skills they need to succeed, if they have actually been developed, are perishable.
Their training will not, in the least, be adequate to prepare them for an assault by terrorists employing military weapons and tactics, particularly if, like most jihadists, they expect to die and to take as many innocents with them as possible. The SWAT team will be marginally prepared to take on one or two common criminals, armed with the kinds of weapons criminals commonly carry. They will not be prepared to deal with booby traps, explosives, or coordinated offensive fire.
Their equipment will not be standardized and will be a mixture of agency-owned gear and personal gear. The agencies may own a few submachine guns, such as the H&K MP5 or AR-15 pattern weapons, and will likely provide just enough very expensive high-threat-level body armor for a small entry team. The agencies will also likely provide a bullet-resistant shield, and perhaps standard military helmets.
Most agencies will not have radio gear, including radios and headsets, apart from that used daily by their street officers. In SWAT and/or combat operations, this is a dangerous, limiting factor. It means not only will the SWAT team likely have too few radios, they will not have dedicated channels, and the equipment available will be substandard for their needs. Their communications will be hampered at best, and next to useless at worst.
The SWAT team members will have their agency-issued handguns, but apart from that will have to provide virtually everything else. If they have a carbine, it will most likely be a personally owned, semi automatic AR-15 type. Any optics and/or laser sights will be personally owned and selected and not standardized. Their sights may or may not be accurately aligned, as the photo of a SWAT troop with a holographic sight mounted backward on his carbine that headlines this article so hilariously and dangerously illustrates.
There will likely be little or no specific training in rifle or submachine employment, marksmanship and tactics.
Top tier tactical teams shoot as much ammunition in practice in a month, or even a week, as most law enforcement agencies do in a year. To attain and maintain the necessary level of proficiency, this is mandatory. Unfortunately, that’s not true of our hypothetical SWAT team. Most police officers — even SWAT types — aren’t gun guys and girls. They shoot only when they have to: yearly qualifications with generous passing scores and multiple opportunities to pass. They clean and maintain their issued weapons even less often.
Where a top tier team will be issued their weapons, will be exclusively responsible for them, and will regularly practice and qualify with them in realistic circumstances, circumstances mirroring what they will be most likely to encounter, our fictional team will be fortunate to have two qualification shoots per year on a common range with fixed silhouette targets at known ranges, none of which are obscured, behind cover, or moving.
The local team member wielding a department-owned MP5 may have last fired it a year ago, or may have never fired the weapon in his hands as he approaches your daughter’s elementary school. The officer who usually carries that weapon may be out of town when called out, or he just couldn’t be reached. The man carrying his MP5 may have no idea where its sights are fixed or who last fired the weapon or adjusted its sights. He may have no idea when it was last cleaned—if it was cleaned–or by whom. When he pulls the trigger, he may have no idea precisely where the bullets will strike. He may be frighteningly unfamiliar with his primary weapon, and even less familiar with its ammunition.
What this means is that the local SWAT team can’t be counted upon to be capable of the accuracy necessary to save lives. Top tier teams have a saying, “it sucks to be a hostage,” because even for people of their level of training and skill, the deaths of hostages are common. Well-meaning police officers dressed up like top tier teams and using similar weapons will surely do worse, and even in situations where there is no actual danger, make deadly mistakes, as in the Jose Guerena case, where a team comprised of four local agencies, fired 71 rounds in a panic, striking Guerena only 22 times, but ventilating his home from exterior wall to exterior wall and from floor to ceiling, as well as perforating the surrounding neighborhood.
The local team will not be called to the school for a very long time, most likely at least an hour. Officers may be ordered to meet at a central location such as the nearest police headquarters, or may be sent directly to the school, but nothing will likely be done until the various SWAT commanders can assemble and confer. Few, if any, will have any actual tactical leadership experience.
Current police doctrine calls for the first officers on the scene of a school attack to immediately enter the school, seek out and engage the attacker(s). This will likely have been done, and those officers killed, wounded, or repelled. By the time a local SWAT team can be fielded, terrorists will likely have already done all the damage they’d planned to do and killed themselves in the process, or they will have set multiple booby-traps, and will be well prepared to repel any attack.
I am not disparaging the local SWAT team or the efforts of local police agencies that do their best to protect the public. Most of those involved will be well intentioned and serious about their responsibilities. Unfortunately, they will be also likely be poorly and incompletely trained, poorly and incompletely equipped, inexperienced, and unprepared to meet the challenges they face. Worse, they will not have the experience to know what they don’t know, and will tend to resist competent advice from outside their sources.
School attacks must be, first and foremost, deterred. Knowing they will be likely to face immediate and effective armed resistance, criminals and terrorists will be highly likely to attack other, softer targets. Ironically, this is a primary reason many school districts continue to resist arming willing staff: they know that if the school district next door allows it, every surrounding district will have no choice, and it will spread like wildfire across the nation. The greater irony is such cynical decisions leave children and teachers helpless in the face of armed threats.
Where deterrence fails, only immediate and effective force, applied when and where an attack occurs, can save lives, as it did at a 2008 attack on an Israeli high school.
It’s possible that armed teachers may not be able to stop an attack, but they can slow it, allowing more innocents to escape. Some armed resistance is far better than none, or as one school district has tragicomically proposed, storing canned vegetables in classrooms to be issued to students to throw at armed attackers.
As useful as a well-manned, well-equipped and well-trained SWAT team may be in many situations, in any kind of school attack, and particularly in organized terror attacks, they will all too often be too little and too late. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Mike’s Home blog is Stately McDaniel Manor.