How Not to Be a Victim
- 2004 19 Nov
A lot has changed since 9/11, and nowhere is this more evident than at our nation's airports. Before 9/11, the briefings given to people traveling to high-risk areas on what to do in the event of a hijacking were pretty simple: stay calm, do what you're told, and you'll probably come home. Above all, don't do anything to interfere with the hijackers; they're either unstable people or else calculating people out to get something and, thus, subject to negotiation and settlement. The strategy certainly has changed since 9/11. Specifically, it changed with flight 93 over Pennsylvania when Todd Beamer said, "Let's roll." The die was cast, and air travel will never be the same.
Over the last thirty-five years, I've briefed, trained, or talked to thousands of people about staying safe in hostile situations. Many of these people have been high-risk media personalities or government figures. They all ask the same question: "How can I keep from becoming a victim of crime and steer clear of dangerous environments?" Most of us are looking for a magic formula or some easy way to make sure we come home safely. Let me first say the same thing I tell my media clients: there is no such thing as 100 percent security. Our goal is to reduce the risks to an acceptable level. When I consult with companies or individuals, I first talk to them about their risk and what they see as their exposure. Then we talk about what level or risk they want to achieve. I have said at conferences and on television that the only way to have 100 percent security is to build a high wall around your home and never leave. Then, after a pause, I remark, "Of course, even that isn't foolproof." Some trusted person could turn on you, or a piece of equipment could explode and kill you. I think it's safe to say there isn't any totally safe environment. What we want to do is reduce the risk to an acceptable level. I'm confident, though, that with a little planning, some of the right equipment, and training in how not to be a victim, one can greatly reduce the risk of being harmed by a violent act.
Let me explain what I mean by not becoming a victim. I usually start my seminars with this illustration: image you're watching an older lady walking alone on a cool fall day in any major city. For that matter, it could be Smalltown, U.S.A. This woman has on a coat with a scarf and hat. She is walking slowly with her purse dangling from the arm closest to the street. Her shoulders bend forward, and her head is hanging down with her eyes on the pavement. She looks dejected and unaware of her surroundings. Now picture another woman walking down the same street, except that this one is moving briskly with her shoulders back, head up, making eye contact for enough time to tell each passerby, "I see you." Her purse is tucked under the arm away from the street, and she walks with an air of confidence. Which one do you think the street hoodlum will try to attack? If you said the first one, you're right. This fact, based on a study of victims, confirms my own personal interviews with hundreds of suspects we arrested in L.A. for crimes against people and property.
The first thing that virtually every suspect says when I ask, "Why did you do it?" is, "It was easy." He – or she – invariably responds that the victim looked unprepared or the business had no visible security measures. What goes for street crime also goes for business and internal crime. When I brought a business theft suspect in, the accused said, "Well, the business obviously doesn't care. They don't have any security measures, and they never talk about theft or losing product." I could write a book of stories, but I think you get the picture: we must move from looking like victims to looking like we're prepared. We must send the spoken and silent message: if you try and attack us or steal from us you will be stopped. What works for personal or corporate safety also applies to staying safe from terrorism.
In the Air
Let's star with how we travel. Remember how passengers were told to act if we were involved in a hijacking before 9/11? By September 12, all that had changed. I was called by many television shows to talk about terrorism, airport security, and how to act on a hijacked plane. I spent considerable time reflecting on my own thoughts about how we should act, hoping many people, even in their shocked state, would listen to me as an expert and do what I said. I wanted to be careful not only to keep people out of harm's way but also to empower them so they could be in charge of their own safety.
I'm not even sure how I would have reacted if I had been on one of the hijacked airplanes on 9/11. But with time, all of us – myself included – have learned better. We've all heard stories since 9/11 of passengers who've stood up to their would-be captors, taken charge, and subdued those who were a violent threat. So what should you do? How do you prepare yourself, and what could you use as a weapon to defend yourself?
First, one's mind-set has to change even before boarding a flight. We should be observant and watch who is getting on the plane. Look for "problem people," those who seem ill at ease or out of place. When you get on the plane, look around to see who is sitting near you, and look for those who could be action people in the event of a problem. Actor James Woods knows what I mean. Shortly before 9/11, while flying from Boston to L.A., he observed several men of Middle Eastern appearance acting in a manner inconsistent with simple travelers flying coast to coast. He knew they were up to something and was unnerved to the point of notifying the flight attendant. The rest of the flight passed uneventfully without Woods knowing what happened to his information. On 9/11, his exact flight was one of those hijacked. Two of the men on his flight were among the nineteen hijackers. Woods had stumbled onto a dry run of the terrorist attack. Sadly, before 9/11, nothing much could be done. Now many additional measures are taken.
After 9/11, I did several shows where we re-enacted an attempted takeover of an airplane. I went through some of the things to do and the potential weapons that are available to passengers. First, in the event of a problem, action must be taken quickly. Mobilize those around you; speak out commands like, "Hijacker! I need help." If the hijacker has a weapon such as a knife, pull off your seat cushion and use it as a weapon to swing at the suspect or to shield the blow if he stabs at you. Books and magazines can be thrown at the suspect to distract them and fend off blows. While this is going on, keep calling out for action from the other passengers. Overpower the suspect with numbers, and you will likely succeed. We can no longer assume hijackings will have a safe conclusion. Our best hope is quick, determined action.
On the Ground
How do we secure our homes and businesses so we can avoid being targeted in the first place? For years I have been helping people self-evaluate their homes and businesses. Many folks don't have the resources for elaborate alarms, cameras, or other perimeter defenses. This inability to provide security was sadly borne out several years ago when actress Rebecca Schaeffer was killed by a stalker in North Hollywood. Ms Schaeffer had a successful show, "My Sister Sam," and was somewhat known but wasn't yet at the financial level to be able to obtain personal security or live in a high-security environment. The reason she became a victim was because the door surveillance system was broken in her apartment. Unknowingly, when she went to her front door, she went to her death.
I have trained hundreds of people, businesses, and families to do a self-audit of their homes, offices, and lifestyles. First, keep in mind that what we shouldn't do in our homes and businesses is the same thing that the little old lady did in my illustration at the beginning of this chapter: don't look like a victim. I've interviewed career criminals who specialized in home break-ins, and they all said they cased a neighborhood, looking for the easiest home to get into. They're not looking for a challenge; they're looking for a quick, trouble-free score. For them, an easy home is one with no visible security measures and those that have low visibility from the street. Even though this book focuses on terrorism, the mind-set to keep us from becoming a victim of the terrorist starts with the basic procedures we use in our everyday lives. If we are going to travel with peace of mind – and that really is what I seek to give the clients of West Coast Detective group International – we need to know that our family and businesses are secure when we leave.
Let's do a home or apartment security audit. If you're in a home, go to the front of your home and stand on the sidewalk. What do you see as you review your home with the eye of a security expert or – and I hope this is a stretch for you – the eye of the home break-in specialist? As I have done with my clients in person, I will stand now with you as my client.
- Is there any sign of a security system or awareness? Are there alarm company signs, cameras, lighting that is motion-sensitive from dusk to dawn? Is there good visibility of the doors and windows to your home? If you have any deficiencies in these areas, they can be easily fixed, usually with little cost. If you have a gardener or do it yourself, trim your shrubs to provide a good view of your windows and doors. If you can't install an alarm system, buy a sign that says you have one. Many break-ins happen at the back of the house, and this is a good place to install a keypad that is visible from your back door or window. These keypads are battery-operated and have a red LED light that gives the appearance of an armed security system.
- Do you allow mail, newspapers, or other unattended items to stack up? They tell the would-be intruder that you are either gone or inattentive. If you travel, have someone maintain the normal duties such as mail, newspapers, and trash bins.
- Now walk to your front door. What type of front door do you have, solid wood or one with windows? If you have a door with glass in it, install a dead bolt with an inside key (but be sure you keep the key close by in the case of an emergency). If you have a solid wood door, then use a dead bolt with a turn on the inside. The best type of security is solid wood with a peephole, to see who is at the front door before you ever open it. The big mistake people make is to open the door before they know who is there. This is very important if you have children; train them early not to run and open the door. When my daughter was four and five, she always wanted to dash for the door when the doorbell rang. I taught her that was forbidden. Today, my daughter is thirteen and has traded running to the door for running to acting auditions! Together we have developed a child safety program called Boagie Bear Detective Child Safety, an organization that trains children through characters, books and songs. It soon will be introduced into the school systems.
- Now we are ready for windows. Studies have shown that a large percentage of the time, a criminal who breaks into homes finds an unlocked door or window, or a broken window lock. These are things we, as home residents, don't see a lot; out of sight is out of mind. If you have a lock that isn't working, replace it. It's so much cheaper than the consequences of failed security.
- One of the reasons our homes are broken into while we are away is because they appear unoccupied. I've had remote homes that I didn't get to a lot and at all of them I have nighttime lighting inside my home that comes on for a few hours each night. One of the things I've discovered in my many years of protecting people and property is that lighting and good visibility are big deterrents to crime. Remember, most criminals don’t' want to be caught, and if your home or business looks secure, they'll go elsewhere.
- Now walk with me through the rest of your house and check all the windows and outside doors. Pay special attention to your bathroom windows. This is another place that is a prime entry point for the criminal; they're often left open or they have defective locks. (Also, while you are making this inspection, check your smoke detectors to ensure that the batteries are working.)
- We're now at the back of your home. Check all doors and windows using the same procedure as for the front door. Look around. Do you see areas where someone could hide and have time to break into your home undetected? If you can, change it. One of the most important protections for the back of your home is lighting. All-night, low-wattage lighting costs only a few cents each day.
If you have performed this basic audit of your home, apartment, or business, you have started to change from living as a potential victim to living in a safer environment. Congratulations. Your family will thank you, if not now, at some time in the future. Also, when you travel and they're home, you can now have a higher level of peace of mind about their safety. Most of us will never be the individual targets of terrorists or criminals, but my motto is, "Plan for the worst and expect the best." I have found in my work protecting people's lives and property than when one is really prepared, the bad things tend not to happen. The assault comes when one is unprepared.
Where are some of the other places we are vulnerable? If we're to be targeted, keep in mind that the professional terrorist or criminal works to determine the routine of their victim. Many of our problems start when we're performing our daily routines, shopping at the market or mall, for instance, unaware of what and who is around us. So many of the cases I have worked started with a person who was followed home from the store, totally unaware they were being followed. Maybe they wore too much jewelry or flashed too much cash, setting themselves up as victims. Most people, when they go to their cars after shopping, are totally distracted by putting bags in the car and focused on getting home. They never look around to see who might be watching or whether they've left with two street thugs following. So my message is, "Be alert!" Check what is going on around you and never drive home if you think you are being followed. Drive to the nearest police station, fire station, or any place where there are people.
Click here to read Part Two.
Excerpted from "Counter-Terrorism Handbook: How to Protect Yourself at Home and Abroad" by Phil Little with Albert Perrotta. Copyright © 2004, Phil Little. ISBN 0-8054-4025-9. Published by Broadman & Holman Publishers. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Phil Little entered law enforcement and developed an interest in the criminal justice field, which led him to specialize in intelligence and counter-terrorism. He was a sought-after speaker for government and private sector crime and terrorism prevention events. He has appeared on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox networks, as well as many cable shows. He was the host of "Crime Line," a radio talk show in Los Angeles, and a cable television show, "Security Watch." To share information on world terrorism, he often visited the White House during the eighties and nineties. His agency, West Coast Detective Group International, established in 1922, is a recognized leader in the corporate security field and has been instrumental in the development of threat management for high profile media personalities. You can contact the author at email@example.com.