Friday, December 28, 2012

The Man Who Stopped a School Shooting

Until the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the deadliest school shooting in American history occurred at the University of Texas in 1966.  Charles Whitman, an architecture student at the university (and a Marine Corps veteran) climbed the landmark, 28-story clock tower on the UT campus with a high-powered rifle, then opened fire.  Sixteen people died before a small group of Austin police officers, accompanied by armed citizens put an end to the rampage.

Now, one of the heroes of that deadly day has died.  Former Austin policeman Houston McCoy passed away Thursday at the age of 72, following a long illness.

McCoy, then a young patrol officer, was among the first members of the Austin police department to arrive at the scene after Whitman began shooting.  They found death and horror across a wide stretch of the campus surrounding the sniper's perch.  Dozens lay dead or wounded while Whitman continued firing.  When a police sharpshooter in a small plane circling the tower was unable to draw a bead on the shooter, McCoy and other officers made their way to the  tower and began moving towards the observation deck, where Whitman was partially obstructed by the structure.

The Austin American-Statesman describes how McCoy, armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, ended 99 minutes of chaos:

The frantic moments on the observation deck and who did what and when have been rehashed, researched and analyzed by history buffs and family. It’s generally accepted that it was McCoy’s shotgun blast that felled Whitman. But [fellow Austin policeman Ramiro] Martinez shot him, too, and initially got the credit until about 1970, when then-Police Chief Bob Miles first began to publicly talk about McCoy’s role in stopping Whitman. By then, McCoy had resigned from the department and was a civilian flight instructor in Del Rio for the U.S. Air Force.

From his bed in a rest home in 2011, McCoy recounted what he remembered: “I got him. But it really doesn’t matter whether I got him or Martinez did. Martinez is a good man, and he was the first police officer on the deck to confront the sniper. There were many heroes that day, police officers and civilians.”

Houston McCoy's humility belies his heroism on that fateful day.  Back in 1966, virtually no police department in America was prepared for what unfolded in Austin.  There were no SWAT teams; few police units had dedicated helicopters and officers on the beat generally didn't have access to rifles like the ones Whitman used during his shooting spree.  Urban legend has it that the Austin PD issued a public plea for citizens to bring hunting rifles to the scene to increase officer's firepower.   In fact, one of the men who climbed the tower with McCoy, Martinez and fellow officer Jerry Day was Allen Crum, a deputized civilian carrying a borrowed rifle.

Most people were unaware of McCoy's role in stopping Whitman until 1970, when new details of the shooting were made public.  Until then, Martinez had been credited with firing the shots that killed the sniper.  Indeed, autopsy results showed that one round from Martinez's service revolver struck Whitman.  But it was a pair of shotgun blasts--fired by McCoy that felled the gunman.

Years later, McCoy insisted that he did not want to be defined by that day--or Charles Whitman:

n an interview with the American-Statesman in April 2011, he vehemently requested that Whitman — whom he didn’t call by name but referred to as “the sniper” — not be included in his final story. “But I guess you have to do that, mention the incident,” McCoy said. “Just be sure to say that I was not the only police officer there that day. It was teamwork.

Officer McCoy's heroism and selflessness are reminders of what is often necessary to stop a madman.  Now, in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting, it's instructive to look back at the first deadly rampage at an American school and how it finally ended, not with the passage of new restrictions on the Second Amendment, but at the end of a shotgun barrel, carried by a brave man wearing a badge.

Forty-four years after Whitman's rampage, another gunman appeared on the UT campus.  He terrorized students briefly before taking his own life as university police arrived.  Incidentally, the sprawling Texas campus had been declared a "gun free zone" several years before the would-be shooter, Colton Tooley, opened fire in the campus library.  Go figure.      



Thursday, December 20, 2012

Lucky Man

NBC's Richard Engel is a very lucky man.

The network's "Chief Foreign Correspondent" was released earlier this week, five days after being taken captive while covering the civil war in Syria.  Engel and the rest of his crew were freed on Monday when their captors (part of a faction loyal to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad) were stopped at a checkpoint manned by anti-regime forces.  At least two of the kidnappers were killed when a firefight ensured and the NBC cerw managed to escape.  Members of the rebel group that ended the abduction helped Engel and his colleagues reach safety in Turkey on Tuesday.

In an interview that aired on his network, Engel said the NBC team was not tortured during their days in captivity, but they were subjected to mock executions.  That strikes us as a bit odd; a number of journalists have died inside Syria and Assad's thugs would have little problem with torturing a western news crew before executing them and disposing of their bodies.   But Engel and the other NBC journalists lived long enough to escape when the opportunity presented itself.

So why were Mr. Engel and his crew allowed to survive?  The first possibility is that the kidnappers realized they had nabbed a really big media fish, one that was worth more alive than dead.  Engel has been covering the Middle East for more than a decade, and speaks fluent Arabic.  Without the  language barrier that confronts many western journalists, perhaps Engel convinced the kidnappers to let them live, in exchange for a potential ransom from NBC, or the "goodwill" that would come from eventually releasing them.

Still, that scenario is a bit of a stretch.  The Assad government has murdered 44,000 of its citizens over the past 18 months, and their public image went in the toilet a long time ago.  Somehow, the Damascus government doesn't seem overly concerned with the subtleties of public relations, and that same trait extends to the pro-Assad group that nabbed Mr. Engel.

In reality, there is probably a much more simple--and direct--explanation for Engel's survival.  The Assad government planned to use the NBC crew to send a message, warning western reporters to stay out of Syria.  Perhaps there would have been a show trial in Damascus, or some rougher treatment before their release.  While Engel and his colleagues deserve credit for making the best of  a bad situation, their relatively long survival (before escape) suggests their captors had no plans for a quick execution.

Unfortunately, the next foreign reporter to be captured inside Syria may not be as fortunate.  As we've noted in previous posts, the conflict in Syria is growing more savage by the day.  There are growing concerns about Assad's massive arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, and their potential employment against rebel forces.   The regime has also begun using SCUD missiles and shorter-range (but more accurate) SS-21s against its foes.   Obviously, a surface-to-surfaced missile isn't exactly the weapon of choice against rebel forces, which don't mass in large concentrations or operate from fixed facilities, like conventional forces.

But on the other hand, a SCUD or SS-21 is an ideal weapon for delivering a chemical warhead against populated areas where the rebels operate and find refuge.   So far, there have been no confirmed reports of missile strikes against insurgent forces using chemical weapons, but opposition groups claim the Assad regime has used chemical weapons several times in recent weeks.  However, these reports are no better than second-hand and they have not been confirmed by any western intelligence organization, or media outlet.

Which brings us back to Mr. Engel and his competitors.  If Assad is planning to unleash chemical weapons against his people, the last thing he wants is a western media crew to document the mass casualties, or falling victim themselves, if they happen to be in the affected area.  So, why not grab a high-profile western journalist and use that unfortunately individual (or crew) to send a not-so-subtle message to the rest of the press.  Engel was clearly the chosen medium, until the plan was interrupted by rebel forces at that checkpoint.

We're guessing that Mr. Assad's goons are shadowing other western reporters, in a search for their next kidnap victims.   And with the survival of the Assad government at stake--and a CW offensive in the offing--the next abduction will occur sooner, rather than later.  And we will likely see a much different outcome.
ADDENDUM:  Damascus may have other reasons for chasing reporters out of the war zone (and other areas).  It was reported today that Syria is serving as a trans-shipment point for the Russian-made S-300 air defense system en route to Iran.  Officially, Moscow has refused to sell the state-of-the-art equipment to Tehran, but Fox News reported today that the S-300 is being shipped to Iran through Syria.  In exchange, the Iranians will continue to provide the guns, ammunition and support that Damascus needs to continue the war with the rebels.

While Russia has sold the advanced3 SA-17 SAM system to Syria in the past, Moscow reportedly canceled an S-300 delivery to Assad's forces earlier this year.  Other reports suggest that Croatia is transferring its older SA-10 equipment to Iran through Syria, with the blessings of Moscow.  The SA-10 represents of the "first generation" of the system, which has evolved into the more advanced SA-20/S-300 variants.

Croatia never deployed the SA-10 operationally, and the radars, missiles and other equipment were kept in covered storage for years.  The condition of the Croatian SA-10s is unknown, but they could be restored to operational service with Russian assistance.  Deployment of the SA-10 in Iran would present serious challenges to potential air attacks by the U.S. or Israel.   Transferring the surplus gear from Croatia (through Damascus) creates a degree of deniability for Russia, which never allowed a direct transfer of the S-300 from its production lines, to Iran.

If the Croatian SA-10s are being flown to Iran, the most likely trans-shipment point is Damascus International Airport or military airfields in that area.   Clearly, there are plenty of people in Syria, Iran, Russia and Croatia who don't want western reporters ("embedded" with rebel forces) to provide more video proof of these flights.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Re-thinking Guns and Schools

Friday's massacre in Connecticut will inevitably re-ignite the debate over guns and school safety.  Of course, some believe the debate is already over; for years, the education establishment has argued that schools should be designated as "gun free" zones, with swift punishment for anyone who violates that policy.  There have been numerous cases where elementary school students have been suspended for bringing a toy gun to school.  In recent months, youngsters in Colorado, North Carolina and Michigan received suspensions for having a toy gun at school, or on a school bus.

As the residents of Newtown, Connecticut grapple with the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it may be worth considering the efficacy of existing policies.  Connecticut has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, but they did little to protect the victims of today's rampage.  Media reports indicate the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, used handguns registered to his mother, who was a teacher at the school.  Lanza killed his mother at their home before going to Sandy Hook and  launching the shooting spree that ultimately claimed 27 lives.

A tragedy of this type inevitably resurrects memories of similar events in the past; Virginia Tech, Colombine, Jonesboro and others.  But oddly enough, there is little mention of a school shooting that ended not with the gunman taking his own life, but with the suspect being forced to stop his rampage at the barrel of a gun, aimed by a school official who had the training and courage to fight back.  We refer to the shooting that occurred in Pearl, Mississippi in October 1997.

There are some similarities between events in Pearl 15 years ago, and what happened yesterday in Connecticut.  The shooter in Mississippi, Luke Woodham, began his crime spree by murdering his mother at their home before heading to Pearl High School, where he was a student.  Arriving on campus a few minutes later, Woodham used a high-powered rifle to target his fellow students and school staff members.  Two students died and seven others were wounded in a hail of bullets.  The school principal desperately called 911 for assistance.

But Assistant Principal Joel Myrick took another approach.  Long concerned about the possibility of shooting incident, Myrick kept a .45 pistol in his car.  When shots rang out on that October morning, Myrick dashed to his car and retrieved the weapon, then returned to the school in search of the gunman.  When the assistant principal confronted Woodham, the gunman surrendered.  When police arrived, they found Myrick holding Woodham at gunpoint, his foot across the assailant's neck.

We may never know the number of lives saved by Joel Myrick.  When he caught up with Woodham, the shooter had returned to his mother's car and was preparing to drive to nearby Pearl Junior High School, where he planned to resume his shooting spree.  Instead, Woodham was taken into custody, tried, convicted and sentenced to three life terms in prison.  Woodham will be eligible for parole when he turns 65.

While the loss of life in Pearl was tragic, it could have been much, much worse.  At a decisive moment, it was the presence of an armed citizen that prevented a much greater slaughter.  And the Mississippi incident isn't the only example.  In May 1974, Palestinian terrorists targeted an Israeli school in the village of Ma'alot, taking a number of students hostage.  When Israeli commandos tried to free the students, the terrorists opened fire on their captives, killing 22 of them.

Fearing another attack, Israeli educators asked the military for assistance.  But the IDF told them it was impractical to station troops at all schools and college campuses. So, the Israelis began training teachers, counselors, administrators and parent volunteers to carry weapons, and provide protection  for their schools.  While virtually no teachers carry guns in the classroom, every school soon had an armed sccurity detail, professional or volunteer.  Realizing that Israeli schools were no longer a "soft" target, the terrorists began looking elsewhere.  It would be more than 25 years before the jihadists would again target an Israeli school.

In March 2008, two off-duty IDF officers stopped an attack on a religious school in Jerusalem.  The Israeli officers, both former students at the institution, arrived before police, and eliminated the Palestinian gunman, who had already slaughtered eight students.  But as in the Pearl shooting, the timely intervention of the IDF officers likely prevented a far worse tragedy.  The terrorist managed to smuggle an automatic weapon and hundreds of rounds of ammunition into the school and might have killed many more students, had the Israeli officers not arrived on the scene.

To be fair, the presence of armed educators and security personnel isn't a panacea.  During the Colombine massacre, a school security officer retreated into the main office and remained there throughout the rampage; a sheriff's deputy, assigned as the school's resource officer, was called to the perimeter of the campus shortly before the shooting began and was unable to re-enter the building.

Still, the presence of armed--and trained--individuals can make a difference.  A shooter at the Appalachian School of Law surrendered after being confronted by fellow students--who retrieved weapons from their vehicles.  By some accounts, the suspect still had rounds in his gun at the time of his capture, and could have killed others without the intervention of the armed students, both of whom were local law enforcement officers.

School security has steadily improved since the days of Pearl and Colombine.  Yet, events like the one in Newtown still occur, though the overall number of shootings has declined.  Just hours after the bodies of dead children were removed from Sandy Hook school, liberal politicians were already plotting strategies to leverage the tragedy in a new attempt to restrict gun rights.  But for those who are genuinely sincere about preventing such disasters in the future, it's time for an honest examination of what does--and doesn't--work.  Creating an armed security presence inside our schools may seem radical, but given the record of "gun free zones" and "zero tolerance," it may be time for a different approach.  


Monday, December 03, 2012

The Most Dangerous Turn in Syria

The conflict in Syria appears poised to take an ominous--and even more deadly--turn.

In recent days, there have been several developments, suggesting that the on-going civil way may soon cross one of the feared "red lines," dragging Syria's neighbors (and perhaps NATO) into the conflict as well.

First, there were multiple reports last week that the Assad government had shut down internet access across the country and restricted cell phone service in a number of areas.  The move came after government forces suffered a string of recent defeats, losing control of air bases and other key facilities around Damascus.  Restricting communications would (at least in theory) make it more difficult for rebel forces to plan follow-on attacks.  Syrian insurgents, like those in other countries, have made extensive use of various internet platforms to coordinate their activities.

While the communications shut-down makes some degree of military sense, it raises a couple of obvious questions.  First, why did Assad and his minions wait so long, and secondly, why surrender such a valuable source of "open source" intelligence information as the battle for Syria enters a critical phase.  Besides, rebel forces have been receiving secure communications gear from the U.S.  (and other sources) for several months, so pulling the plug on the internet may not impact anti-government forces as much as Mr. Assad might hope.

But the comms black-out may be related to something far more dangerous--the potential introduction of chemical weapons in the 20-month-old conflict.  According to The New York Times, U.S. intelligence agencies have detected recent movements involving Syria's chemical stockpile, activity that goes well beyond past measures which placed them in more secure locations:

The Syrian military’s movement of chemical weapons in recent days has prompted the United States and several allies to repeat their warning to President Bashar al-Assad that he would be “held accountable” if his forces used the weapons against the rebels fighting his government. 


What exactly the Syrian forces intend to do with the weapons remains murky, according to officials who have seen the intelligence from Syria. One American official provided the most specific description yet of what has been detected, saying that “the activity we are seeing suggests some potential chemical weapon preparation,” which goes beyond the mere movement of stockpiles among Syria’s several dozen known sites. But the official declined to offer more specifics of what those preparations entailed.

U.S. officials did not provide specifics on the type of activity observed.  Preparation actions involving chemical weapons can include such measures as

-- Removing chemical shells and missile warheads from secure storage
-- Transporting those weapons to designated delivery systems (such as aircraft, artillery units and missile battalions)
-- Special security measures involving weapons storage sites and employment assets
-- Detection of chemical protection and decontamination activity among units involved in CW operations
-- Activation of special C2 networks associated with WMD employment (and)
-- The actual "mating" of chemical munitions with delivery platforms

Not surprisingly, the current activity involving Assad's CW stockpile has caught the attention of Israel's neighbors.  Turkey has asked NATO to deploy two Patriot air defense battalions, to help defend the country from chemical-tipped missiles that might be fired from Syria.

Meanwhile, Israel is considering a much more aggressive approach.  Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu has sought Jordan's permission to bomb Syrian WMD sites on two occasions in the last two months.  In both instances Jordan declined, saying the "timing wasn't right."

With many Syrian CW facilities located near the Jordanian border, Israel believes it is important to have Amman's permission before launching an attack through its airspace.  But as U.S. officials observe, Israel doesn't need Jordan's permission to go after Syria; over the years, the Israeli Air Force has struck a number of targets in Syrian-controlled territory with near-impunity.  So, why the sudden concern about Jordanian permission?

For starters, it's worth remembering that airstrikes alone won't eliminate most of Syria's chemical arsenal.  Neutralizing that threat means destroying weapons, eliminating production facilities and removing some assets--and personnel--from Syrian territory.  It's a monumental task, one that would require a minimum of 75,000 troops, based on a recent Pentagon estimate.

While there are no indications that Israel (or anyone else) is contemplating that type of operation, a flight corridor through Jordan would have certain advantages.  First, it would decrease the amount of time Israeli aircraft spend in hostile airspace, and if coupled with a feint towards Lebanon (a more traditional ingress route for Syrian missions) and cyber-attacks against Damascus's air defense network, the IAF would have much better odds of achieving complete tactical surprise.

Additionally, the "Jordan option" suggests Israel has more than airstrikes in mind.  Routing through Jordan would be ideal for an Israeli command operation, using helicopters and transport planes to ferry special forces assets deep into Syrian territory, allowing them to attack high-value WMD sites and fly captured weapons back to Israel.

This much is certain: the events of recent days are clearly connected, and signal that the Syrian civil war is moving in a very dangerous phase.  With the internet switched off (and only limited cell phone service), it will be easier for the Assad government to use chemical weapons against the rebels, without the sort of "instant" reporting that would normally accompany such events.

Under present conditions, it may take hours (or even days) for reports of CW attacks to reach the west, giving Mr. Assad and his regime time to concoct their own version of events.  By his calculations, if the circumstances surrounding chemical attacks are "murky" enough, the west is less likely to act, giving him the green light to continue a WMD campaign against his own people.

And if all else fails. Assad is quite willing to provoke a regional war, in hopes of uniting the Arab world against their common foe--Israel.  If the chemical genie is released from its bottle, it's quite easy to envision initial attacks against rebel forces being followed by "stray" missiles launched against Israel and Turkey.  Assad believes (correctly or not) that both of his foes would be restrained by the U.S. and NATO--and the success of available missile defense systems.

If his desperation plan works, the various regional players would be less likely to intervene on the side of the rebels (hoping to avoid a further escalation in the conflict), allowing Assad to proceed with an even greater genocide in the name of regime survival.  And if it doesn't, there's always a quick flight to Tehran, and billions looted from the Syrian treasury, socked away in Swiss bank accounts.

As for the United States, our recently re-elected Commander-in-Chief is about to get a nasty surprise.  Having kicked the Syrian can to the end of the road, President Obama will soon face a tough decision.  Find some way to neutralize the Syrian WMD threat, or watch those weapons be used against anti-government forces--along with innocent civilians in Israel, Turkey and Jordan.  He can out-source the job to the Israelis (or the Syrian rebels); launch a U.S. military operation, or mount some sort of coalition effort.  Whatever he chooses, the outcome won't be very clean, and the potential loss of life could be significant.  But there are few good options in Syria right now, and postponing the decision won't make them any better.