Surviving Mass Attacks: Advice from Dr. Gary Jackson

Aug 12, 2019

By James A. Swan, Ph.D., P.O. Box 44426, Rio Rancho, NM 87174

Here we are again with mass attacks – Dayton and El Paso -- that have killed at least 31 people and wounded a bunch more. Not only are these attacks awful, but the media coverage bombards us with stories that definitely plant fear in minds.

Mass attacks aren’t new. In various forms they have been around for thousands of years. The two most recent mass attacks have been committed with firearms, and so that draws attention to guns as does the 2017 mass attack at a concert in Las Vegas that killed 58 people wounded 422. But, let’s not forget that that two of the three largest mass attacks in recent years involved bombing: the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, killed 168 people including 19 children and injured several hundred more injured ; and the worst of all was 9/11, 2001 -- deadliest terrorist attack in history in the US -- Deaths‎: ‎2,996 (2,977 victims + 19 hijackers) and thousands injured.

Last year I contributed two articles for the Outdoor Wire about mass attacks in Florida and Las Vegas,, and I wrote it from the perspective of being a psychologist who has counseled some pretty disturbed people, consulted with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies since the 1970’s, and as a professor at the University of Oregon I taught classes about primary prevention, and did consulting on police-community relations.

A few months ago I was sent a copy of a new book, Surviving Mass Victim Attacks by Dr. Gary Jackson (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). This book takes on the full reality of how to cope with mass attacks based on the work of a real professional. Dr. Jackson began as a professor of psychology who also worked with incarcerated criminals, including killers. From that he evolved into being director of R&D and treatment development in various clinical settings, a research psychologist within the U.S. Secret Service Intelligence Division, an Intelligence Officer and Chief of three advanced technology branches within the Central Intelligence Agency, vice president and director of research and development for a major psychological test development company, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Intelligent Systems (CAIS) for the American Institutes for Research and, the founding president and CEO of Psynapse Technologies in Washington DC. He now runs Anbeco, LLC, consulting on the behavioral and computer sciences to anticipate, identify, and mitigate threats to organizations in the public, private, and government sectors.

I not only reviewed the book, which is clear, and will save lives, but Dr. Jackson and I shared some background during which time he said that while working with the Pentagon, he was late for work on 9/11, which meant that he was minutes away from the Pentagon when the hijacked plane crashed there. This has moved us to explore what can be done to deal with this situation.

I asked Dr. Jackson if he would share some of his experience with the readers of the Outdoor Wire, as many are owners of firearms. The following is our conversation.

Q: Dr. Jackson, mass attacks have been around for a long time, but the individual as an attacker is fairly recent. And, the US is getting close to being a leader in mass attacks, while crime in general has been declining in the last 20 years. What can you say about the recent attackers? Can you profile one? What drives them? Anything new or different?

A: The number of mass attacks per year remains at approximately the same levels for the last 35-40 years. However, the numbers killed and wounded has increased over time. Many attacks have been perpetrated by single individuals, basically male, but there are exceptions. The Columbine High School is an example of two attackers working in tandem as well as the Boston Marathon bombing committed by two brothers, and the San Bernardino, CA attack committed by a husband and wife. There are few commonalities across attackers that would aid profiling. Age has ranged from teens to those in later life and motives vary. Other than gender, the differences are far greater than the similarities.

Behavioral warning signs, or red flags, are far more useful than profiles. In almost all attacks examined, there were warning signs that went unheeded and unreported. It is important to realize that we have basically five types of attackers (international terrorism, self-radicalized terrorism, domestic terrorism, those attacking out of hate/anger, and those with serious mental health issues. These types of attackers are different in motivation, targeting, and tactics. We also must remember there are four types of actual attacks, although we typically think of shootings. We observe guns, bombings, vehicle run downs, and sharps (knives, hatchets, and machetes).

Q: Suppose someone gets drawn into a mass attack. You talk about what to do in your book. Can you elaborate on this briefly?

A: The basic four defenses that have been used to successfully survive mass attacks are, in order of importance: Escape, Hide, Stay-in-place, and Attack Back. The first thought if caught in an attack or it is clear there is going to be an attack within seconds is always Escape. Escaping is leaving danger to a place of safety as quickly as possible. That is always the goal.

If Escape just is not possible, then Hiding is the next option. However, hiding should still be viewed as temporary until escape can occur.

Third, hide and escape, is a special case. You should never just stay-in-place EXCEPT when a small-scale bombing has occurred. Why? Because, as in the Boston Marathon bombing. There may be a second bomb making it possible to escape harm in the first only to run to the vicinity of a second bomb (the Boston Marathon bombing had two bombs one block apart that exploded 18 seconds apart.

Last, and only last, is Attack Back. This is just not fight. The mass attacker is there to kill you. Your goal is not a fist fight. It is to do whatever you have to do to stop the attacker from killing, including killing the attacker. If in a restaurant or bar, grab knives, forks, glasses or bottles, or any objects that can be used in the unfortunate event that an attacker has you trapped. Remember, an attacker with a sharp object can inflict wounds as deadly as gun fire – in some cases they can be worse.

Q: People are going to try to start doing things to stop or at least reduce the number and size of attacks. This is a big national reality and it involves govt., law enforcement, organizations, and social services. What do you think is needed to be the most effective things to curb this mess? Can you give us almost like a shopping list?

A: The absolutely most important thing to do is to prevent such attacks. Many believe this is not possible. I have logged more than 60 prevented attacks. It is essential to report behavior that could be threatening if observed. It it appears to be disturbing with threat to others, then local law enforcement should be alerted. If it appears an attack is eminent, then report to 911. In almost every attack, warning signs were there. People are reluctant to report a neighbor, friend, or family member. However, it is better to report than waiting to see that the person observed kills others and then is also killed in the process or kills himself. Prevention is real, and we need to get much better at reporting. Perhaps, “see something, say something” needs much more clarification. It does not mean to report someone because they look different and dress differently. It does mean to report on suspicious behavior that could be threatening. It could be statements made about others, Internet/social media posts, saving pictures of past mass attacks, and obvious mental health issues with a preoccupation with assault style weapons, as examples. There is a tendency to provided armed security in certain locations as houses of worship and schools – but armed guards must be thoroughly trained and have the gumption to go after an attacker in the process of an attack. There are also personal protection devices (PPDs) that are legal to carry. A good example is a small container of pepper spray that can fit in the pocket or purse. The same is true of a pocketknife. These PPDs are last resort measures if totally trapped. Pepper spray can totally debilitate a person if aimed at the eyes and can reach as far as 15 feet.

Q: Guns are the weapon of choice at the present time. But the biggest lethal attack was Oklahoma City in 1995 with bombs. Then there was the Unabomber (I went to school with him and he targeted one of my professors.) Even if we did away with guns, would it stop mass attack?

A: No, if guns were removed there would still be mass attacks. We see this especially in countries where guns are very difficult if not impossible to obtain. We observe Vehicle Run Downs and Stabbings instead of guns. The terrorist groups Al-Qaeda and ISIS have both called for such attacks because guns are not available but anyone can rent a truck or purchase a hunting knife to carry out attacks. Al-Qaeda published instructions for making a pressure cooker bomb – the type used in the Boston Marathon bombing -materials are easy to obtain and are easy to build. The Oklahoma City massive bomb was constructed of ammonia nitrate fertilizer soaked in diesel oil and detonated. We have also seen an increase in vehicle run downs and mass stabbings in our country – making terrorist groups happy that attackers listen. Attacks are NOT the fault of guns – they are the fault of the attacker. The attacker is free to use any type of weapon that can be fatal to others, including chemicals, biological agents, and radioactivity obtained illegally and spread with explosives.

Q: Some people have suggested that mass media is part of what's causing increasing mass attacks? What do you think? And what do you suggest media do to help curb attacks?

A: It may be broader than media. I believe we also have to include some video games. The media tends to “over expose” attacks with detailed and even gruesome coverage that may last for many days. Some available video games are actually as gruesome as an actual attack. In particular, those affected by hate/anger and mental health issues may view media coverage as their means to achieve the much wanted recognition, they have not been able to achieve. Media coverage basically says, “kill a group of people and you will be famous.” That warped need may be much stronger than fear of death. Media should limit coverage to a report on the attack and some factual updates over the next few days. We don’t really “need” updates TV news coverage every few hours following an attack that includes local, state, and federal officials recognizing their efficiencies. Many of these actually start with “We don’t have anything new to report,” but the coverage occurs all over again and may show photographs of the attacker as well as replays of the gruesome attack. Again, those seeking any kind of fame and who may have real mental health issues may feed off this constant media coverage. The copycat lives for the details.

Q: There is debate about how important mental illness and mental health are to mass attacks. Do we need to improve or fix the existing mental health system to do a better job of preventing mass attacks?

A: Absolutely! Just as we all can report those with threatening issues, I believe that we have to ensure that mental health professionals in particular must be in the position of reporting concerns immediately to law enforcement. The attacker in the Century 16 movie theatre who killed 12 and wounded others had been visiting a mental health professional and had made repeated threatening statements, but not reported. Fixing the mental health system is very important, but we must remember that not all attackers have mental health issues that would be obvious. Many with a hate/revenge or terrorist motive are not mentally ill. We must also remember that the vast majority of those with mental health issues are nonviolent.

One last note: it is almost impossible to easily pass on all the information possible to ensure survival in mass attacks. That is why I wrote my book, “Surviving Mass Victim Attacks: What to do when the Unthinkable Happens” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018). This is also the reason why the interviewer, Dr. James Swan and I have combined forces to develop a documentary covering all aspects of surviving and preventing mass attacks. We are dedicated to helping to save lives in these horrific situations. Basically, the only commonality of attacks has been the presence of a group of people. No group is sacred, and any group can be a target. We want to increase situational awareness and combine with knowledge of what to look for and what to do.


AUTHOR’S NOTE: As a person who works in the media and has worked on mental health and primary prevention for years, as the attacks have continued, I began to wonder if the media are reluctant to do much about educating people about how to cope with attacks and even curb them, as the research shows that mainstream media today is 10-17 times more negative and sensational than objective, and as Dr. Barry Glassner has written in his best-selling book The Culture of Fear, we live in the Information Age when were bombarded by fearful stories, which definitely have an effect on us.

Joseph Pulitzer, who was responsible for setting up the Pulitzer Prize, really summed up the situation, when he said, "A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will in time produce a people as base as itself."

I hope this very basic advice from Dr. Jackson will save some lives and help us establish security and sanity in our modern lives.

— James A. Swan, PhD.