Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tackling Terrorism

Terrorism is the tactic of demanding the impossible, and demanding it at gunpoint.
- Christopher Hitchens, Terrorism: Notes Toward a Definition

The passengers remained motionless and eerily quiet until the SWAT team burst into the bus. "Freeze! Put your hands on your head!", the commander ordered, his gun drawn and pointed directly at me. "Really?" I asked, nervously awaiting his response. He shook his head no so I continued snapping pictures amazed at the scene unfolding before me.

So what would happen if a terrorist hijacked a city bus and took all the passengers hostage? This was the situation facing the Marion County Sheriff's Office SWAT team as they demonstrated how to safely restore order after experiencing just such an attack. The presentation was part of the Public Transit Conference held in Seaside, OR, this year, and as the sole photographer there I was invited inside the bus to photograph the drama (and I was able to bounce a flash too!).

In our scenario, a lone gunman seizes control of a public bus and uses the passengers as ransom for his demands. Once the SWAT team arrives on the scene, their first priority is to establish communication with the terrorist and attempt to negotiate with them. If these efforts fail or if the threat of violence escalates, the suspect is "taken out", usually by a sniper's bullet. At that point, the SWAT team surrounds the vehicle, forces entry into it, unloads all the passengers, and sweeps the area for explosives or weapons. All the passengers remain in custody until it's determined they weren't involved in the crime -- usually terrorists don't work alone.

Considering the gravity of the situation and everything that needed to be done, the SWAT team members responded efficiently, effectively, precisely, and professionally. In fact my only complaint is that the whole experience raced by too fast, as there were many meaningful moments to record and I had a back row seat to do it from!

Fighting terrorism is like being a goalkeeper. You can make a hundred brilliant saves but the only shot that people remember is the one that gets past you.
- Paul Wilkinson, London Daily Telegraph