December 20, 2016

We, the people, must become the first line of defence

It’s a familiar dance now. The news breaks. Social media goes crazy. Rumours circulate. Foul play is confirmed. Political leaders howl their indignation. We change our Facebook profile pictures. We are Berlin, Paris, Istanbul, Nice.

The right is quick to point out that the alleged perpetrator is an immigrant, the left rushes in to downplay that he is a Muslim. We hurt, we’re in shock, we try hard to carry on. Yet deep inside we’re almost getting used to it. And we know the next one is around the corner.

Sorrow and anger are natural reactions. They are justified. But they are not enough. We have to fight back. We, the people, must become the first line of defence.

Europeans should engage in massive training programmes involving doctors, fire brigades, police forces, intelligence professionals and soldiers. If terrorists target ordinary citizens, then these ordinary citizens must learn to fight back.

After the November 2015 Paris attacks, some called for training of citizens to react properly in cases of terror attacks, including learning the necessary first aid skills.

But we should all be training for much more than that. The quick reaction of American soldiers during the August 2015 Thalys train attack showed the importance of individuals’ actions – and we must all become these individuals.

Onlookers at the Bataclan, the bloodiest scene of the Paris attacks, recalled the fear at seeing people hopelessly trying to flee. Citizens must be taught about first aid but also how to react: whether to run, hide or fight. For some it may even be about learning combat, but ultimately we should learn how to anticipate, notice and react.

We need to learn awareness in crowds, and how to master a panic reaction. This is not about learning to be suspicious, but rather learning to control an uncontrollable situation. If we are ‘familiar’ with a potential situation – however gruesome – we will feel more confident about our ability to react in an appropriate way, whether it is providing basic life-saving care, stopping an attacker, or facilitating emergency services’ access to the scene of an attack.

We must learn to know our neighbours and get more involved in our communities. We must learn to recognise the signs of impending radicalisation of individuals, by engaging with them directly, whether at school, at the supermarket or at the newsagent’s. We must build trust locally instead of shutting ourselves off in like-minded groups.

We need to build individual strength and resilience to collectively build societal resilience. We must not become vigilantes, but we cannot rely on security forces only. We must learn to be more than sitting ducks.

Terrorists attack our freedom of movement and our way of life. A total crackdown and taking away civil liberties is not the answer, nor is building a ‘fortress Europe’. We must instead learn the skills to counter attacks and recover from them quickly. This, much more than surveillance or more police or armed forces on the street, will cut the ground from beneath the terrorists’ feet. For if we are not afraid, they lose.

The identities of the Berlin attack victims are unknown. And the cycle of indignation – however justified – has only just begun. We’ve barely finished grieving for Aleppo, fearing the worst following the murder of the Russian ambassador’s in Istanbul, or agreeing in near-global unison that 2016 is a year we’re happy to see the back of.

But 2017 heralds more upheaval, more fear and more uncertainty. We, the people, the individual citizens, carry the answer. It’s time to make security an individual as well as a collective concern.

Pauline Massart is deputy director for security and geopolitics at Friends of Europe and vice president for outreach and operations at Women in International Security (WIIS) Brussels.

This article was first published on Friends of Europe.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – Andreas Trojak

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Pauline Massart

Pauline Massart

WIIS Brussels Vice President for Outreach and Operations

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