Mass Attacks and COVID-19: A Military Perspective
By Gary M. Jackson, PhD
*This is an article from the Summer 2020 issue of Combat Stress.
Unfortunately, we all are too familiar with mass attacks. We may have a loved one who was killed or injured, we may have survived a horrific attack, we may have suffered injuries ourselves, we may be coping with the stress effects and fear associated with an attack, and we may be suffering from recurrent and frequent thoughts and images of attackers slaughtering innocent victims. We are also affected by the relatively simple act of watching the incessant and graphic media coverage of attacks, often in progress. We may also be fearing the future. The topic is enormous, complex, and evolving. I take this opportunity to focus the topic on the U.S. military and what we could expect in the future.
First, we must confront confusion. There is no universal agreement on such definitions as mass attacks, mass shootings, mass casualty attacks, mass victim attacks, or active shootings. There are a multitude of similar terms and they are defined differently. There is a saying among many of us who study violent attacks that there are as many definitions as there are experts. Because I am focusing on mass attacks specifically on the military, which can include any type of weapon, I define the term mass attack from the perspective of the purpose of the act and not the type of attack or weapon used, regardless of the number of fatalities. Most definitions include at least three or four killed, not counting the attacker(s).
Focusing on the purpose of the attack, I have defined a mass attack in the following way: A mass attack is a planned individual or multiple perpetrator violent assault directed at a group of typically innocent people, using recognized or improvised weapons for the sole purpose of killing as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Why put Covid-19 and mass attacks in the same sentence? Retired four-star General John (Jack) Keane was the former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. Highly respected, on March 10, 2020, President Donald Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. General Keane stated on a TV network news interview on May 29, 2020 that President Xi Jinping of China had weaponized the Covid-19 virus. General Keane stated in that interview, “I mean, [Xi] actually used that disease to spread it around the world because he thought it would destroy Western democracies’ economies, and he’s been able to accomplish that.”1
As the virus surfaced and began to spread within China’s City of Wuhan in the latter months of 2019, domestic travel from that region within China was abruptly halted and residents ordered to shelter-in-place, while international flights out of the city and surrounding area were allowed. Medical specialists were prohibited from sending out warnings about the virus and forced to recant any warnings if made. These acts protected China, while encouraging spread of the contagious virus throughout the rest of the world, fueled by international flights from the contagious area. At the same time, China gathered and hoarded necessary personal protective materials from around the world, solely for use within China.
Investigations are occurring and evidence continues to be gathered in a concerted effort by U.S. and United Kingdom Intelligence services. Regardless of whether the Covid-19 pandemic began as an accident followed by Communist party opportunism, or a virus spread with full malicious intent, the effect is the same. We no longer need to speculate about the impact and consequences of a large-scale biological mass attack – we now know what can happen, and the military has not been immune. Now, adversaries worldwide also know the devastating effects of a virus spreading throughout the West.
While some of us have experienced mass attacks, either as observer or victim, we all have experienced the consequences of the rapidly spreading Covid-19 virus. Hundreds of millions in the U.S. have sheltered in their homes. If fortunate, some have been able to work from home; however, many millions lost their jobs, and many have lost their lives. We all learned to socially distance from others, wear masks, wash hands incessantly and how to prevent entry of the virus into our homes, while expert advice changed frequently. At the time of writing this article, 1,909,077 people in the U.S. have contracted Covid-19 and of these cases, 109,497 people have died.
The indirect effects of Covid-19 magnify the consequences of the spreading virus – it is not just about the virus itself, as detrimental as it is to humans. It is well known that the type of isolation associated with forced sheltering-in-place is associated with diminished mental health. In a March 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 47 percent of those sheltering-in-place reported negative mental health effects.2 Unfortunately, we are experiencing increases in stress, depression, suicide, domestic abuse, child abuse, and addictions. The severity and speed of economic damage is unparalleled in our country’s history.
Our Military, Families, and Friends
U.S. military members are no strangers to mass attacks or Covid-19. We must always remember: each victim represents numerous severely affected family members and friends. The numbers affected far outweigh the number of victims reported. Table 1 displays mass attacks targeting the U.S. military. The data presented excludes any personal one-on-one disputes or crimes of passion.
Typical mass attacks are perpetrated by different types of attackers who use a variety of attack methods, diverse targeting, and various weapons. There is International Terrorism (e.g., the 9/11 attack), Domestic Terrorism (e.g., Major Nidal Hasan Ford Hood attack), Self-radicalized Terrorism (e.g., Chattanooga Marine and Navy Recruitment Center Shooting), attacks driven by mental health issues (e.g., Sandy Hook Elementary School), and attacks driven by hate/ prejudice (e.g., Charleston Church shooting). Within the U.S., we have experienced mass attacks by all these types of attackers.
Weapons used during most mass attacks have included guns (typically semi-automatic pistols or assault-like rifles), bombs (small scale and large scale), sharps (knives, machetes), and vehicles to run over multiple victims simultaneously. There also have been mass attacks that combine weapon types into a single attack (e.g., bombing and shooting). In regions of the world where it is difficult for adversaries to obtain guns, the terrorist groups al-Qaida and ISIS have encouraged attacks using easy to obtain sharps, such as knives and machetes and rental trucks to run over crowds of people. Mass attacks tend to be directed at a single group of innocent and unarmed people of any age or gender. They are assaults and deadly.
The use of four fully loaded airliners for suicide bombings in the 9/11 attack represent high yield explosives, killing almost 3,000 people across New York City, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC. Although not as effective as planned, the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist group used Sarin gas to attack innocent travelers on a Tokyo subway in 1995 – 12 were killed and more than 1,000 were injured. These examples fit more properly under weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Such weapons can consist of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high yield explosives (CBRNE). These two examples represent high yield explosives and chemical attacks, respectively.
Covid-19, or any virus, would be classified as biological (CBRNE) and we all can easily see why a biological attack would be considered a weapon of mass destruction (7,069,278 cases and 405,587 deaths worldwide to date – and still spreading). While more typical mass attacks are accompanied by obvious physical weapons that are recognizable, even at the last minute or immediately in the case of a bombing, a virus is not immediately detectable. It cannot be seen and may not be obvious until one is stricken with illness. A carrier may be asymptomatic, with no apparent signs that the virus is present, and still be capable of transmitting the virus to others. It can be a weapon that has inflicted its damage before realization occurs – and then rapid defensive measures must be taken on a large scale to try to contain it. Table 2 show the current COVID-19 cases within the Department of Defense (DOD) and Table 3 displays the number of cases by U.S. military service branches.8
As of June 10, 2020, 4,601 military members, 695 dependents, 964 civilians and 362 contractors have recovered. Of the reported 448 requiring hospitalization, fatalities consisted of 36 DOD-connected, three troops (Army-2, Navy-1) five military dependents, nine contractors, and 19 civilians.
The U.S. military eats, sleeps, works, and fights in highly dense quarters, a recipe for virus contagion. As a case in point, on March 27, 2020, the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt docked in Guam because of a Covid-19 outbreak. On board, 777 of the 4800 Sailors had tested positive. Some were hospitalized and in April, the ship’s first death occurred. At the time of docking, 25 other ships had reported Covid-19 positive cases.9
We must include CBRNE in our mass attack awareness. A successful biological attack is the perfect asymmetric warfare weapon. It is a means by which a very small coordinated efforts can inflict heinous damage in a somewhat directed manner that can inflict millions and cause up to a million deaths in the long run, while decimating societies and families and seriously damaging physical, mental and economic well-being.
A biological attack can spawn countless indirect deadly effects – all beginning without warning to allow for a proper defense.
Covid-19 is a wake-up call. It caught us by surprise. We have learned much since the beginning of this year. We now need to implement prevention and safety measures, should an adversary unleash a biological attack in the future. Although a mass shooting and Covid-19 are quite different, they share commonalities: (1) use the element of surprise, (2) target anyone and everyone, and (3) show no mercy. Whether we are facing rapidly firedsemi-automatic gunfire or an unseen virus, we must know how to protect ourselves, how to survive, and how to cope with the aftermath.
What to Do?
We have available useful slogans to guide responses in mass attack scenarios, although most responses have been prepared for mass or active shootings. For example, “Run, Hide, and Fight” is used widely to describe what to do in a mass attack. “See Something, Say Something” is another popular slogan to remind us to report something unusual. Although useful, the slogans are a bit too simplistic – it is time to improve. If caught in a mass attack, just running as a first priority may not be wise. One needs to know where to run and where not to run. Multiple fatalities have been found in restrooms after a mass attack because many ran there seeking safety, but most restrooms do not have exits – they are typically dead ends.
Also, one may need to know what to report and to whom. Our concern should be focused on suspicious behavior that has significant potential for harm if left unchecked. We cannot avoid reporting of serious threatening behavior of family or friends. If concerned, report anonymously. If there is an immediate threat, we report to 911. If it is suspicious behavior that could be threatening, local law enforcement should get the call.
For these reasons, among others, I have gone into detail on what to look for and what to do in my book, Surviving Mass Victim Attacks: What to do when the Unthinkable Happens.10 I studied past attacks and how people managed to survive. Strategies for survival surfaced. I emphasize Escape, Hide, Stay-in-place, and Fight Back. Rather than run, escape means to leave a place of danger and go to a place of safety. Hide means to place an obstacle between you and an attacker so that you are not seen or heard. Stay-in-place is only for small scale bombings – if one goes off near you. If you are injured, you do not want to just run and end up in the vicinity of a second bomb.
Fight back means to attack back only as a last resort. These tactics are designed to counter threat. These points are relevant for a Covid-19 pandemic, as well. For example: Escape: To decrease the probability of contracting a spreading biological agent, go to a safe location such as your home where it is unlikely the virus will be present.
Hide: Once in a safe place, remain sheltered and use sound health practices, such as washing hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds repeatedly throughout the day, spray surfaces often with disinfectant, and practice social distancing. If you must go outside, always wear a mask. Stay-in-Place: Remain sheltered until health officials announce stabilization of the virus and evidence that it is diminishing.
Fight Back: By following sound health practices, you are fighting back and helping to reduce the consequences of a contagious biological agent as it spreads and does damage. The more people that stay free of serious virus effects, the more an attacker is denied desired objectives.
In a more traditional attack (e.g., shooting, etc.), escape is always the first priority. Attackers are well armed, and confrontation is not likely to be successful. Hiding should be seen only as a temporary measure until escape can occur. Moving to safety and using hiding to eventually escape are keys to survival.
Any discussion of mass attacks targeting the military must include the obvious and serious need for policy changes. The fact that military bases are essentially gun-free zones, except for military police, is both ironic and absurd. This makes inflicting casualties horrifically easy, especially if there is no plan of escape. Any potential attacker at a military base or installation of any kind knows that, of all places, once inside, just pick a target and start shooting defenseless victims. We have witnessed scores of mass shootings in gun-free zones in this country, including schools and military bases.
This must change. As schools and places of worship have started to have armed security, it is past time for our military to protect themselves on bases and installations. Major Nidal Hassan, an Army psychiatrist, entered the Soldier Readiness Processing Center at Fort Hood, Texas on November 5, 2009. He was armed with FN-57 and .357 magnum pistols.
His objective was to kill as many as possible,shooting random victims, then focusing on military personnel. This terrorist mass attack may be the prime example of our military being a gun-free zone. While he viciously shot and killed personnel, the bravery of the victims was nothing short of astounding. Fighting back by throwing chairs, tables, and anything they could use to no avail, Hasan killed 13 before being shot and apprehended by military police.
The fact is that just this one attack can represent much of what is wrong with how we are approaching solutions for mass attacks. First, just as a physician must accurately diagnose an illness to prescribe the correct treatment, proper classification is a necessity. Ten years after the attack, presidential politics has kept this slaughter labeled as workplace violence, when it was clearly obvious that Major Nidal Hassan was a jihadist sympathizer with active strong communication and funding ties to Anwar al-Awlaki, known Jihadist terrorist. This one attack demonstrates the widespread suffering of survivors, as well as the consequences of losing 13 innocent victims and the indelible pain suffered by families and colleagues. The aftermath also demonstrates the struggle made by survivors to correct the inaccuracies.11
Although it is not possible to provide tips for survival in a short article because most tips are specific to location, context, and situation, there are some that cut across all situations. I provide 12 here – six for typical mass attacks and six for Covid-19.
Mass Attack Awareness
1. Know yourself. Know your capabilities and be aware of any health condition that could prevent you from escaping in a timely manner. When in public places, know where the exits are located.
2. Situational awareness. Be aware when in public gatherings of any type – keep eyes and ears free of any devices that could impede your senses. My classic example is texting on a cell phone or listening to broadcasts. You want to be able to assess any danger.
3. Know about the location you are visiting. Have there been violent incidents in the past? Example: You can visit Central Park in New York City during the day, but no one visits once dark. We have similar situations in most cities.
4. If you are responsible for others who might not be able to escape properly because of age (e.g., infant, child, elderly) or disability (e.g., cane, wheelchair, hearing, vision, etc.), take special care to stay alert and aware of your environment with potential exits.
5. Be aware of a person exhibiting behavior very differently from all others (e.g. wearing a long coat in the summer that could be used to hide weapons, looking very grim when all others are happy). He knows that he could be killed once an attack starts – he is going to be solemn.
6. When entering any public space, immediately identify locations that could be used for escape and hiding in the process. If concerned, sit near exits in a restaurant, bar, etc.
Biological Awareness (Covid-19)
1. During Covid-19 recovery, as businesses and public locations open, if a specific location does not practice safety measures (e.g., masks, social distancing, etc.) – leave.
2. You must suspend disbelief or doubt that there is a biological threat. It is difficult to continue to practice safety measures when you cannot see the threat or if others are not following safety practices. Take care of yourself, family, and friends.
3. If you believe you have come in close contact with a person who is positive for Covid-19, self-quarantine and, again, protect family and friends – particularly if elderly or have underlying serious medical conditions.
4. Be knowledgeable. Information, data, and expert advice changes over time as more is learned about how the Covid-19 virus is transmitted. Know current symptoms which morph over time, treatment options, when to seek medical attention, and the trends of new cases and fatalities.
5. Although you may likely experience shelteringin- place, you are not alone. Thanks to modern day technology, the internet, social networking, and cell phone calls afford unlimited ways to communicate, establish connections with former friends and colleagues, and ways to learn new items of interest.
6. If you are suffering from high levels of stress or depression, seek professional help from those qualified.
Having researched all forms of threat for decades, both domestically and on foreign soil, I do not see all of the deterrents we need. However, there is very good news, I have logged over 60 examples of mass attacks being prevented by law enforcement and proper use of tips provided. This is significant. Headway is being made in prevention. Protective services are improving as well. Will there be future mass attacks and mass attacks specifically focusing on the military?
Yes. It is not by chance that in the past, places of worship, malls, schools, and military bases have experienced many mass attacks – there are no real deterrents. The objective of an attacker is to focus on a group of unarmed people. If the purpose is to leave an anti-American politically based message, it will be a form of terrorism.
The key for the future is to increase our reporting of any behavior of those among us appearing to be anti-American, anti-military, or with strong disgruntlement against the military. Prevention is working when unusual and threatening behavior is reported to law enforcement officials. Properobservation and reporting can save lives.
There will likely be attempts at biological attacks. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has informed all (friend and foe) what can be accomplished if the U.S. is hit with a biological agent and how it can spread. We will need to add airport security measures to detect any traveler with specific types of symptoms – we will likely see work completed in this area very shortly.
In short, know yourself, know your enemy and what to look for and to report, and know how to respond if caught in an attack. The probability of being caught in a mass attack is said to be extremely small – much like the chances of being hit by lightning. Tell that to the victims’ families and survivors of attacks like the ones displayed in Table 1. Awareness and active protective measures such as threat observation and proper reporting should be used as a defense – not statistics.
1. Creitz, C., Gen. Jack Keane: China ‘weaponized’ coronavirus to ‘destroy western democracies’ economies,’ Fox News Network, LLC, May 29, 2020. https://www.foxnews.com/media/jack-keane-china-weaponized-coronavirus-destroy-economies
2. Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Orgera, K., Cox, C., Garfield, R., Hamel, L., Muñana, C. & Chidambaram, P. The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use, Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), April 21, 2020.
3. NBC Staff, A History of Shootings at Military Installations in the
U.S., NBC Washington.com/news, December 6, 2019. https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/a-history-of-shootings-at-militaryinstallations-in-the-us/1953672/
4. Editors, September 11 Attacks, History.com, September 11, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/21st-century/9-11-attacks
5. Editors, USS Cole Attacked by Terrorists, History.com, July 27, 2019. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/uss-cole-attacked-by-terrorists
6. Staff, Mir Aimal Kansi – FBI Most Wanted #435, FBI Most Wanted, February 11, 1993. https://fbimostwanted.us/zc/index.php?main_page=wordpress&p=56
7. Ernsberger, R., Jr., 1983 Beirut barracks bombing: ‘The BLT Building is gone!, Marine Times, October 23, 1983. https://www.marinecorpstimes.com/news/your-marine-corps/2019/10/23/1983-beirut-barracks-bombing-the-blt-building-is-gone/
8. Seck, H.H., The Military’s Coronavirus Cases: The Latest Rundown, Military News, June 10, 2020. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2020/03/16/militarys-coronavirus-cases-latest-rundown.html
9. Kenney, C.M., More than 25 Navy Ships Now Have Sailors Infected with the Coronavirus, Military News, April 23, 2020. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2020/04/23/more-25-navy-ships-now-havesailors-infected-coronavirus.html
10. Jackson, G.M., Surviving Mass Victim Attacks: What to do when the Unthinkable Happens, Rowman and Littlefield, 2018.
11. Platoni, K., The Fort Hood Massacre – Ten Years Later, Combat Stress, Fall, 2019, (8)3, 26-33.