All Guns Blazing – The Fickle Nature Of Lethal Force


Recent cases of hostage stand-offs in Australia and France have been ended by force, bringing this tactic into the limelight once again. Unfortunately this means of ending a hostage siege is unavoidably dangerous even amongst the most highly trained of police or military units, and their use should be limited to cases where all other avenues have been exhausted. In particular, negotiated surrender risks falling by the wayside as a viable option. Because society tends to value the hero who dramatically takes lives rather than the hero who quietly saves them, we risk a selection-bias in examining the optimal means to end hostage scenarios.

As a credit to the police units involved, yesterday’s stand-offs in France seem to have been a ‘home-run’. The Kouachi brothers were both killed while the single hostage escaped unharmed, although it appears that they exited without him, determined to die fighting. While four hostages died in the kosher supermarket, earliest reports suggest that they were murdered before the police raid took place. This success is commendable but should not set a precedent to the exclusion of other alternatives. In contrast, the Sydney siege saw the death of two hostages during the rescue and the injury of three others in still unclear circumstances. These cases demonstrate the fickle nature of such raids.

The spectacular success of the 1980 Iranian embassy siege remains a strong memory in public imagination through countless documentaries, books and TV shows. Since then, the SAS have been worldwide celebrities, and the entire British media seemingly turns into a group of 12 year old boys at the mere mention of the unit. Undoubtedly the highly public raid was a success, ending the siege, rescuing all hostages and killing or capturing all terrorists. However even this roaring success could very easily have gone wrong. The famed “second man on the balcony”, John McAleese, lifted his gun to shoot a figure that appeared in the window during the opening moments of the attack. At this moment his mp5 jammed. This is almost unheard of from the ultra-reliable Heckler and Koch sub-machine gun, but in this case was a stroke of luck – the figure was in fact, a hostage. The accidental killing of the hostage would have tainted the otherwise successful operation. This fluke however, is a little-known fact and Operation Nimrod perpetuates a popular belief that such situations can and should be ended by lethal force.

Since the Bin Laden raid the US group DEVGRU, aka SEAL Team 6, have similarly been in vogue. This group has carried out hundreds of kill-or-capture missions in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years. They have also carried out several hostage rescue missions, and in many cases even these most highly trained and professional of operators have failed. Infamously, Scottish aid worker Linda Norgrove was killed not by her captors but by a DEVGRU grenade during a rescue attempt. Although it is hard to quantify the activities of such a secretive organisation, best estimates suggest that DEVGRU score a ‘home run’ (all hostages rescued) in about 50% of rescue attempts.

This of course, is not an attack on the individuals conducting such raids, who have an unenviable job. Instead it is a cold reminder that such action must be considered a last resort. The most recent attacks by Islamic extremists could unlikely have been ended any other way, as the ideologically motivated perpetrators rarely seem interested in anything but martyrdom. However in cases where hostages are taken during robberies or by mentally unstable, negotiation is often an option. In recent years people have criticised the attitude taken by ever more militarised American police forces. Arming people with ex-military weapons, rifles, flashbang grenades, personal armour and even armoured vehicles gives groups enabling delusions. More weaponry and armour creates a hammer that makes all problems look like a nail. Criticism has come both from inside and outside the system. Although this may be less evident a problem in Europe we must guard against falling into the same trap.

The lethal force option must obviously be retained and remain readily useable. However other options for ending sieges must not pushed to the wayside because of a few successful rescues. Negotiation remains under-utilised in a number of less publicised cases in recent years, while lethal force remains unavoidably fickle as an alternative. On a broader scale it must also be remembered that no hostage scenario occurs in isolation. Gun-control, mental health care, surveillance of terror groups and certain political considerations are all significant factors which can reduce the number of hostage scenarios that ever occur.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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