By George Ojema
On 30th November 2015 a Kenyan institution of higher learning conducted a security drill imitating a terror based attack on its main campus. The intentions of this exercise were well meaning as I can only imagine those involved in its planning had expected to better prepare the people attending class or earning a living through the institution’s existence in the unlikely (or ever increasing if you may) chance that the institution was subject to an attack by any of the many terrorist associations plying their gruesome trade across borders with their unique brand of religious or extra-religious interpretations of scripture. It’s not a far-fetched idea what with the world we live in. Garissa University College was attacked and we demanded that lessons be learned. One lesson was clear; we are woefully unprepared for such an attack.
So some bright sparks begun thinking and there can be no fault found there. Universities and colleges et al have no way to detect radicalized students. How can they? A cell of six planning an attack might sound very straightforward to you as you read this but pour an extra thousand young people around them and add administrative duties such as providing water, food and shelter to them and suddenly the six might be attackers vanish. Then add student politics with the antics of strikes, demonstrations and student funds, abuse of office, vandalism, parents associations and staffing issues to color in the missing gray areas and you have most of a head ache to deal with let alone looking for six would be attackers. Your head might just pop at the prospect of finding out who stole the bulbs in the mess hall!
This chaos clutters up any chance you have of looking for would be attackers without a good lead or a dedicated department to do so and this eventually will lead you to the police or anti-terror experts…paperwork.
Whether you proceed to hunt down these would be attackers or not, it must dawn on you sooner or later that the institution might get attacked out of the blues and you will have to present answers to angry parents, the inquisitive media and perhaps even a government appointed committee as to why people under your charge (sadly) lost life or limb and why you had not prepared them. It used to be fire…now it’s terrorist, times change.
And that, I suspect, is what informed the fateful security drill at Strathmore University on 30th November 2015, the need to prepare against the worst. However, the outcome of the drill has left a bad taste in many mouths.
Was it Safe?
Perhaps. The fundamental idea in my argument is that security does not translate into safety. It may result in it but never translate to it. Consider this, to secure an area you must survey it to ensure no hostile element is present and if a hostile element is in fact present it must be neutralized by a show of force (display to show you outmatch the hostile element without direct confrontation), subjugation (direct confrontation to disarm and subdue the hostile element) or decimation (destruction of the element so it causes no threat in the future).
Once the area is secured it can be declared safe meaning devoid of threat and measures to ensure continued safety can be put in place in anticipation of external threats.
So was the institution safe? Arguably, yes since it can never be established what other dangers were lurking in the wings waiting for the opportune moment to strike.
Was it secure? Before the drill, perhaps. However, the security and safety of the institution was disrupted as the drill took place. A state of panic was established after the gunfire begun and stampedes ensued. The students and staff (I presume) were highly informed about the basic workings of a terror based attack. We live in a world of almost unlimited access to media and information, details of the Garissa University attack, Westgate Mall attack, Tunisia Museum attack, Mali hotel attack, Beirut, Baghdad, Boston marathon, Columbine High School massacre, Sandy Hook Elementary, Charleston church shootings…are available on TV and online, Google is your friend. In all these attacks people died and those that survive bear scars beyond the physical. This information fuels stampedes in the vicinity of gunfire.
It wouldn’t help that we remind students their schools are constant targets after every incident.
The important question now is; did the students and staff know it was a drill?
Had they been put through such drills before? Had they even been given tips or lectures in theory about what to do? Would it have mattered?
The simple answer is yes. And we want it to be a simple answer because the burden becomes easier to bear and the finger lighter to point at the administration. They should have notified the students adequately and repeatedly. Maybe even set aside a morning or afternoon session for the exercise and invited the experts in high visibility vests to crawl on the ground and show them how to cross a stream under threat of death. They should have informed the police and had medical responders at hand to contain any accidents. They should have appointed section leaders and given clear instructions on what to do in the event of a fire or a fire fight or gun fire. They should have…done more.
But let’s look at the complicated answers. Answers we don’t want to hear like maybe. Would you attend a lecture on safety and security and take it seriously when you skive half the classes on economy and political science? Would you commit the information to memory or take down notes? Would it need to be a graded class for it to succeed or could it be a free credit class? Would you cram the information to pass or really commit to applying it? How many former scouts can cook in the earth five years after high school?
So maybe all the preparation in the world would still result in some casualties. But would there be fewer casualties than there are at present? Maybe.
Or it all wouldn’t matter and the answer is no, preparing them in advance could result in the same chaos. It’s difficult to swallow but the slimmest chance does exist that preparing them in advance would not have helped in any way. I doubt this is likely but for the sake of objective argument I must explore and admit it to my reasoning…even though remotely.
In essence the administration carried out a terror attack on its own people.
So, did they know it was a drill? Perhaps. It remains unclear what channels might have been used to communicate the existence of the drill to the university population but from the reaction a majority of those in the melee were blissfully unaware. One does not jump out of a window if one is aware the danger is merely an exercise in a controlled setting. One jokes about hiding under a table or running down the stairs because a poster says not to use the lift. One celebrates because the political science class has to be dismissed for the drill. One has a fantasy where one is the hero leading others to safety.
But with that information not fully materialized no sober opinion can be formed on where the blame lies on that part of the chaos. Is the administration at fault for not providing adequate and timely information on the drill or should we blame the students for not being informed about the same? Or should we find fault with the exercise?
Illusions of security
It would be easy to fault the exercise. By its very design it inspires the thing it is formulated to cure; terror!
Examined closely even you will admit that the security drill dreamt up to prepare students and staff against a terror attack by virtue of probable miscommunication ended up terrorizing the students and staff it was intended to prepare. In essence the administration carried out a terror attack on its own people.
Note that terror based attacks are not intended to leave bodies in the street but to instill fear in the communities they visit. The dead serve as an underscore to the vulnerability of our societies and their loss reminds us how feeble our existence is. Thus, terror attacks do not end after the last round of ammunition is fired but can last entire generations via emotional distress and psychological trauma. Most survivors of terror attacks suffer psychological trauma they never fully recover from, not because they were shot or maimed but because they were there or they survived and others didn’t. A terrorist needn’t fire a shot if your mind has been hit. Rubber bullets or live ammunition, the terror as one falls out of a window to the floor three stories…even one inch down is real and it registers as real.
Besides, who can tell the difference between a rubber bullet and a live round as it leaves the barrel unless they loaded the weapon themselves?
So was it safe to conduct the exercise? Apparently not. Yet it was planned and conducted. Why? It felt safe enough and it would make the institution aware of what to do if it occurred?
But it would provide the illusion of preparedness which would in turn feed the illusion of security which feeds the illusion of safety. Why? Because if you cannot provide security you need to provide the next best thing and this happens to be the illusion of security.
We experience it every day. As you board a bus, some person with a metal detector feels your pockets and passes the metal detector over your hips and waves you on. You smile at them or scowl and they wave you past. Do you feel safe? Yes. Are you actually safe? Have matatus and busses been reported as stolen with passengers left in the thicket without their possessions by armed thugs? Do you still feel safe?
As you walk into a supermarket or restaurant you notice someone waved on because they have a laptop bag. You feel safe because they declared their wealth and your Member of Parliament cannot. Do you know what a briefcase bomb is? Do you still feel safe?
You will note the casual expression of the security guard with the detector in his/her possession and realize there is a big chance he/she has no idea what to look for and no idea what to do once the item they do not know to find has been found. They barely know how to deal with you when you have no name tag allowing you to enter the office. Do you still feel safe?
I fear this poorly conducted security drill would have had the same effect even if it was successful. It would establish the feeling of safety and little else besides it. The illusion it seems is more practical than the item it stands in for.