To Protect a City

Security theatre has its uses, but not during a terrorist attack

By Nick Selby  |   Jan 10, 2015
Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

It got no easier to watch. Another city, placed into lockdown, after a senseless and cowardly act of terror galvanized its populace into grim determination. Even before the shock could pass, before the mourning could begin, the sound of more gunfire echoed through the streets.

In Paris and across France we saw, as we saw in New York and in Boston, every single person with a badge and a gun ran towards the gunfire. Hours after the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, as active shooters made good their escape and were loose in the city, the French government sent soldiers: “patrolling Paris in combat fatigues with machine guns, they guarded Paris and served to calm a jittery populace.

One problem: their guns were not loaded.

While they were wearing combat fatigues, they were not wearing body armor.

Twelve hours after these photos were taken, a female police officer was murdered by gunfire on the same streets these soldiers were patrolling unarmed.

This is security theater at its most potentially deadly worst.

Don’t get us wrong: unarmed officers have their place. Security theater has its place. A cut-out of a police car placed on the highway in such an orientation that drivers think there is a cop car there will slow everyone down. But if you orient the cop-car cut-out wrong, so that it’s parallel to the road, all drivers will see is a vertical line, and the theater fails.

“It’s all about the orientation of your theater,” said Clint Bruce, a former US military special operations officer and the current CEO of TRG. “In the cop-car example, we’re talking about different deployment of the same tool.

Having soldiers walking around in a combat zone carrying rifles without magazines is dangerous and stupid. Because, as Bruce says, “Any terrorist seeing that understands that he’s safe — so long as he stays outside swinging distance.”

Even if these soldiers are carrying loaded magazines on their load-bearing vests, at best it would take five seconds for them to acquire a magazine, load it in the weapon, charge it, and then address the threat. That is an unacceptable engagement time when faced with a trained and dedicated enemy as was seen in this attack.

Life-and-death decisions are made in fractions of a second. Ham-stringing these brave soldiers could mean their death, or the deaths of innocent bystanders, in a very short time-frame. Unarmed officers at Charlie Hebdo did the only smart thing an unarmed officer can do when facing an active shooter: they ran away. Ironically, French police officers are now being advised by the government to carry their weapons with them at all times.

Professional soldiers who are well trained and given responsibility to protect should be entrusted with the tools that afford them the opportunity to do their job right. If there are Constitutional or legal issues with having your soldiers armed on the streets of your cities, then don’t send them there looking armed, send officers who are armed. France has RAID and GIGN officers who train for this each day.

Good security theater could be something as simple as black boxes with flashing lights and cameras that may or may not be functional. Bruce says it is the perception of complexity that serves as the deterrent.

But while rifles may seem complex to those who do not use them regularly, to those who do use them regularly — and this includes criminals and terrorists — there is nothing complex about a rifle missing a magazine. While writing this, a 15-year old saw the photos and said ‘Oh, that’s a FAMAS. But it’s not loaded.” How did he know? Video games. An unloaded rifle is not complex.

The decision to send these soldiers out without ammunition rendered a $1,000 weapon useless as anything other than a club.

This is not a French phenomenon —many American military veterans have stories of performing watch with unloaded rifles on land and at sea. US law enforcement agencies sometimes work side by side with National Guardsmen carrying unloaded rifles in public venues as well, ostensibly to provide a feeling of security (though often these are rifles with empty magazines inserted — and that is far more effective as security theater if the idea is to provide a deterrent).

During Hurricane Katrina, the practice of appearing armed reduced one group of Guardsmen to liabilities during incidents of gunfire, as the empty-rifle-carrying men had to literally hide while marauders roamed the streets firing handguns.

After 9/11, Guardsmen were seen in the DFW airport patrolling with unloaded belt-fed machine guns and M16’s. They were meant to be a force multiplier of the police officers assigned there, but were woefully unprepared to respond to the types of attacks typically seen against these targets. Even they wore body armor, however.

Security plans have, since the days of castles and moats, involved a layered approach: you place deterrents at your outer ring, and gradually increase force the closer you get to your most important assets.

As police officers, as weapons instructors and handlers, we were shocked to see this tactic deployed in the middle of an active shooter terrorist incident that had already taken the lives of civilians and police officers. The terrorists had demonstrated wanton disregard for the lives of their victims. An international audience had watched as these terrorists had shot, execution style, a police officer on the street, and yet France sent unarmed and unarmored soldiers into the heart of the battleground … in the name of “making people feel better.”

The peaceful protests, and defiantly proud non-violence of the mourners at demonstrations throughout France, Europe and the world, who said as one, ‘Je suis Charlie!’ deserve true security and protection, not merely its appearance.

No one can reasonably blame the French authorities for not preventing the Charlie Hebdo attacks; preventing a domestic attack by a homegrown violent extremist is among the hardest things to do, and it’s important to give credit that intelligence agencies had already been tracking several of the players. French police are very good at preventing terror attacks, but intelligence is an art, not a science.

What we do after we know of a specific threat, though, is under our control. When masked gunmen are running through the streets, sending grown trained men to be the face of protection while neutering their ability to accomplish that task dishonors their very purpose, and shamefully fails to serve the people. The people deserve protection. These soldiers and police officers have dedicated their lives to protection. They deserve the full support and protection of functional battle gear.

Sending soldiers into battle naked and unarmed is an unforgivable marketing gesture that is as cowardly as the murdering terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo.

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Nick Selby

Nick Selby

Nick Selby is StreetCred's co-founder and chief executive officer. He was sworn as a police officer in 2010, and currently serves as an investigator at a police agency in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He was an information security analyst and consultant for ten years, and has worked in physical security and intelligence consulting in various roles since 1993. He is co-author of Blackhatonomics: An Inside Look at the Economics of Cybercrime (Syngress, 2012) and technical editor of Investigating Internet Crimes (Syngress, 2013).
Nick Selby

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