MINNEAPOLIS — Accepting the possibility that terrorists could hit home — at any parish or local site — is an important first step in commonsense preparation that could help Catholics save lives by avoiding or mitigating a dangerous situation, according to security specialists.
The increase in terrorist and other attacks around the world, including the recent murder of Father Jacques Hamel as he was saying Mass in a church in Rouen, France, presents the challenge of practicing works of mercy such as welcoming the stranger, while also accepting responsibility for legitimate defense as outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2265) and living the Gospel call to offer our lives for others.
By taking steps to become more aware of our surroundings and to understand possible responses in unstable situations, we become empowered to move beyond denial and the mindset that we can’t do anything, said Peter Johnson, founder of Minneapolis-based Archway Defense, which offers on-site security training for churches. The July 14 attack in Nice, France, and efforts of 9/11 passengers on the hijacked United Flight 93 show that unarmed citizens can save lives.
The best weapons against violence may be prayer and fasting, but as Scripture reveals, that doesn’t eliminate the need to prepare for possible action.
“Many people believe David won over Goliath because David had the Lord with him,” said Fort Worth, Texas, pastor and police officer Jimmy Meeks, who, with retired Army Lt. Col. David Grossman and Carl Chinn, leads Sheepdog Seminars to help Church leaders in the U.S. create safe environments in their churches.
“That’s only half true. David was a slinger. Nobody wanted to fight him. He was a good sniper with a rock. He was trained. People have to start thinking,” Meeks said.
While many support fire prevention, they are reluctant to consider the possibility of violence, said Mascoutah, Ill.-based Grossman. “We can accept a natural disaster, we can accept a fire, but violence is so horrendous that when it occurs, we have trouble grasping the fact that it will occur,” he said.
In 2015, there were 248 deadly-force incidents (DFI) at U.S. faith-based organizations (including abductions and attempts; attacks; suspicious deaths; suicides and deadly-force intervention/protection), compared to 102 in 2010, according to Chinn, who, since 1999, has compiled data about criminal incidents at religious institutions from major news outlets, law enforcement press releases and public court records.
Chinn’s data indicates that there have been 178 DFIs at Catholic churches and facilities since 1999.
Steps to Take
The first step toward being prepared is becoming aware of surroundings and considering how much security there is likely to be at locations we enter — whether they are “soft targets,” with no sufficient countermeasures — or “hard targets,” where security is present, Johnson said.
The same way families may plan for a fire, they should plan before leaving home how each member will respond in the case of disruption. You should “allow your mind to mentally walk down the road of the possibility of you being targeted,” Johnson said. “It shouldn’t be out of position of fear. It should simply say, ‘Okay, this is what the world is. If it happens, this is what we’ll do, if we can.’”
Children see TV reports about attacks and want to know that their parents have a plan, Meeks said.
When entering a location, it’s important to have a sense of what normal behavior is for the place — whether it’s at a parish, mall, theater, etc. — and recognize people whose behavior stands out, Johnson said. Learning common pre-assault indicators can help in recognizing divergent behavior. A variety of videos on these indicators can be found on YouTube. If something doesn’t seem right, share your observations with a security guard or law enforcement if they are present, he said.
Security specialists recommend sitting with your back to the wall in a restaurant or other location when possible. In the case of a disruptive event, the first response should be to get the entire family out, if necessary through the back exit of a restaurant or store, Grossman said.
Other suggestions include carrying pepper spray and downloading a phone app that enables you to speed-dial 911.
Self-defense training builds confidence, Grossman said, noting that Israeli citizens are armed with self-defense skills and maintain an attitude of responsibility for their country’s safety.
We are called to use our intellect and all of our different gifts to care for each other, said Mary Bosscher, a Twin Cities-based administration consultant who has advised many parishes.
Extending hospitality in a parish by greeting visitors helps with awareness of who is around you — and it’s not just the usher’s job. “Are you living hospitality if you don’t see the people and greet them?” Bosscher asked. “It’s as much about living your faith as about security, to see others.”
By welcoming and watching, it’s possible to engage visitors, but it’s also important to recognize a stranger and extend a greeting or recognize friendliness or hostility.
When you see something out of the norm, it is important that you make it your responsibility to care for the community as much as possible, she said.
“You don’t have to be extreme, but when you see something that’s very out of order and do nothing, are you really caring for your community? As a member of a community, that’s part of living your faith,” Bosscher said.
Being aware of surroundings and responding if something’s out of the norm is our responsibility as Christians, Johnson agreed. “If you’re Catholic and believe in [being] pro-life, how can you sit back and not do something when someone’s trying to slaughter innocent lives?”
Americans can make a difference because citizens vastly outnumber perpetrators, Johnson said, adding that solving dangerous situations is not necessarily someone else’s responsibility. In these situations, police or emergency personnel often arrive 10 minutes after they’re called, and life-and-death decisions are sometimes required before that, he said. According to FBI active-shooter data for the period 2000-2013, 13.1% of attacks are stopped by unarmed citizens.
In the July 14 attack in Nice, an unarmed citizen jumped onto the truck during a terrorist’s slaughter of civilians during a Bastille Day celebration, enabling police to end the attack. And during the 9/11 attacks, passengers on United Flight 93 died, but they saved the lives of many others when they prevented terrorists from flying the airplane into a building.
We’re not always called to sacrifice our lives, but we are called to live as a sacrifice, Grossman said.
Superheroes are those who simply decide to stand up, Johnson said. “That’s what makes them a superhero, the decision. It’s not the amount of money; it’s not the amount of equipment or anything else. The people on Flight 93 weren’t superheroes when they woke up. They became superheroes the second they decided to stand against evil and to defend the innocent.”
Register correspondent Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.