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Newtown, Beslan, Ma’alot: Defending the Targeted School

Soft targets will always be attractive to the murderous.

by
Abraham H. Miller

Bio

December 18, 2012 - 12:00 am

As we mourn the victims of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, we might want to take a break from the seemingly endless and mindless discussion of the role of guns in this tragedy and consider a larger issue. One that has not made it to the pages and airwaves of the mainstream media and probably won’t until it is too late.

Beslan, a city in the Russian Federation, is five thousand miles from Newtown, Connecticut. But it is now connected to Newton by a similar tragedy: the invasion of a school and the wanton murder of children and adults.

On the first day of school in 2004, Islamist terrorists seized 1100 children and adults at the Beslan School Number One and herded them into a small gymnasium. The terrorists rigged the gym with mines and bombs. Two conspicuously large bombs were placed in the gym’s basketball hoops.

Children were made to stand in front of the gym’s windows as human shields. Periodically, the terrorists would fire their guns to further terrify the hostages.

Hours passed, the temperature climbed, and hostages began to faint. On the second day of the hostage-taking episode, children began dying of dehydration. Children and adults began stripping to stay cool and some people drank their own urine.

The gruesome scene was videotaped and a compliant and insensitive world media began broadcasting the footage. On the third day of the siege, Russian spetsnaz units stormed the school. Half-naked and bloodied hostages ran from the building.

The terrorists retreated to the school’s basement, where they were wiped out by the Russian troops in a horrendous gunfight. The gymnasium burned to the ground and the charred bodies of adults and children had to await DNA tests for identification. One terrorist had not retreated to the basement, and was later found by the Russian troops hiding under a truck. He told his captors that he would tell them whatever they wanted to know if they would not turn him over to the children’s parents.

The siege at the Beslan School left 311 people dead, of which 186 were children; some 700 people were injured. Neither time nor distance is a great healer in heart-wrenching events such as these. The survivors of Beslan, like survivors of all such episodes, continue to bear their psychological scars.

For years, I interviewed survivors of hostage and barricade situations. Precious few ever truly escape the lingering impact of the experience.

Beslan, as a case study, was part of a presentation I attended some years ago by Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman. A warrior, historian, psychologist, and expert on the science of killing — which he calls Killology — Grossman is a captivating speaker. On the day I heard him he brought law enforcement officers across local, state, and federal jurisdictions to their feet in enthusiastic applause.

Grossman’s message, overly distilled, is this: terrorists choose soft targets that generate a lot of emotional imagery for the camera’s lens. The next 9/11 is probably not going to be the taking of airplanes — a hardened target — but the taking of schools: a soft, unprotected target that has an even greater psychological impact and generates even greater visuals for a Western media hungry to fill airtime with sensational events. Nowhere is the symbiosis of terrorists and their media enablers greater than in events like Beslan.

Most schools are generally unprotected or inadequately protected, like the Newtown school, which had a security system that didn’t trigger an alarm when the shooter broke the window of a locked door to open it from the inside.

Many schools have security guards armed with Walkie Talkies and a life expectancy that will never exceed ten seconds when confronted by an armed attacker. The killer, even without his conspicuous display of weapons, would never have made it through the checkpoint at an Israeli school. If somehow he had, he would have been confronted by trained teachers bearing assault rifles. He might not have gotted off a single round.

Down the street from me is the local traffic court, where armed personnel come and go all day. Try and get into the traffic court, and you are met by armed guards and a security detection system as rigorous as that at the airport. But drive less than half a mile up the street to the neighboring middle school, and there is absolutely no one who could stop an armed intruder.

The average police response time in America is twenty minutes. Cut it in half, and you still have a tragedy.

Liberals think that if you pass stronger gun laws, you’ll stop somebody who is out to commit mass murder. The logic is incomprehensible — a person won’t break a gun law, but will commit mass murder. Adam Lanza broke three gun laws after he shot his mother in the face on his way to shoot up the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Let’s acknowledge the real problem: our schools are soft targets. Terrorists, of all varieties, prey on soft targets. And if Dave Grossman’s projections are correct, Beslan — like the massacre of children at Ma’alot’s Netiv Meir elementary school in Israel — is a harbinger of things to come.

Years ago when I was a counterterrorism consultant, I was acquainted with Robert Kupperman, once the chief scientist for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. A mathematician by profession, Kupperman had an in instinctual understanding of trends and patterns. He warned years earlier that a 9/11-type of event was highly probable, and it should be planned for. By that, he meant a dramatic event on American soil that underscored all the theatrics and mass casualties that terrorists strive to achieve. We should have been simulating such an event. After all, that is what counterterrorism is supposed to be about — anticipating the enemy and stopping him before he strikes.

Kupperman was perceived by well-meaning liberals as an alarmist.

They were convinced that anyone who had the tactical sophistication to pull off such an attack also possessed the political sophistication not to do it. That was the liberal mantra beginning with the Carter administration and embraced by the Clinton administration.

The incident in Newtown was precipitated by a deranged individual and not an organized terrorist group. Yet it illustrates the vulnerability of our schools. Imagine a Beslan-style attack on one of our large urban high schools in a major metropolitan area, where the media’s insatiable appetite for good visuals and dramatic events could be fed. Imagine that you have not a deranged twenty-year-old but a group of well-trained terrorists who are prepared to withstand a siege.

Think your feel-good petitions for more gun control will stop it?

Harden the schools as targets. For as sure as there was a Beslan and a Ma’alot, there will be another Newtown, and one where the perpetrators are not deranged amateurs, but well-trained terrorists bent on a suicide mission.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science and a former head of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association.
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