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How to Stop a Terrorist Who’s Wielding a Car

Perhaps we can agree with George Washington University’s Christopher Leinberger [1] and many others: “walkable urbanism” is a worthy goal. Indeed, let’s simply declare that pedestrian-rich street life, flaneur-friendly walkability, and nice cafés and shops are a key to improving the quality of life in cities and towns.

But there’s just one thing: we must avoid being run over. And unfortunately, in the last few years, we’ve discovered something quite horrible: in the hands of a terrorist, the familiar four-wheeled vehicle can be a frightful weapon.

Nobody has forgotten the April 7 attack in Stockholm, when one Rakhmat Akilov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, hijacked a brewery truck and drove it onto the sidewalk and then into a store, killing four and injuring 15. According to one report [2],

The truck mowed down pedestrians along Drottninggatan, a busy pedestrian shopping street. The truck, stolen just blocks away earlier in the day, came to a stop after slamming into the entrance of the Ahlens department store. Photos from the scene showed a billowing cloud of black smoke rising from the store. “I saw hundreds of people running. They ran for their lives” before the truck crashed into the department store, [said] a witness.

In the wake of the carnage, a former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter [3]:

Steal a lorry or a car and then drive it into a crowd. That seems to be the latest terrorist method. Berlin. London. Now Stockholm.

In fact, the dolorous list is longer than that. Perhaps the best known such incident occurred in Nice, France, in July 2016, killing 84. Meanwhile, “ram raiding” has been happening in Israel [4] for years. Indeed, in 2014, an al-Qaeda video [5] celebrated the tactic.

In the bloody-minded eyes of a would-be terrorist, it’s easy to see the appeal of vehicular terrorism: who needs an elaborate conspiracy when one can just get behind the wheel? If the authorities are tracking guns and explosive materials, as well as monitoring travel and airports, why not simply turn on the ignition and start killing? After all, there are plenty of “tools” available; it’s estimated that the U.S. is home to 264 million cars and trucks [6], and another billion or so vehicles inhabit the rest of the world.

So what to do? How to stop such attacks? Obviously, improvements in homeland security, including immigration vetting—extreme or otherwise—is one answer.

In addition, some will argue that driverless cars are the answer, since they could take away the volitional capability of the motorist to kill. That might all be true in theory, and yet we can point to a few practical problems:

First, according to even the most optimistic scenario, driverless cars are years away—and as we have seen, there are more than a quarter-billion “traditional” vehicles on American roads.

Second, even with driverless technology, do we really expect that the “driver” will have no control of the vehicle whatsoever? Do even the techiest of us think that the computer will control every last movement of every last car, everywhere? And if not—if the driver has any sort of latitude or autonomy—then, in the wrong hands, the potential for mayhem is perpetually present.

Third, speaking of computers and mayhem, we have learned by now—or at least we should have learned—that between Murphy’s Law and malevolent hacking, no cyber-technological solution comes without its own passel of problems, including the problem of deliberate homicide.

So maybe a better way to defend against ram-raiding is, well, defense. That is, a wall, or the equivalent of a wall. As we know, good walls have been making for good neighbors for eons—so why not keep a good thing going?

We can put a wall, or barrier, in the category of “passive defense.” That is, as opposed to “active defense.” Passive defense is just what it sounds like—it’s just there, always on guard. Admittedly, active defense sounds cooler, but by definition, it’s more complicated and thus prone to glitches. And of course, active defense is likely more expensive.

Yet in the meantime, in the wake of the Stockholm attack and all the others, the pressure on public officials and building owners to “do something” will only increase.

Indeed, we might add that here in the litigation-happy United States, there’s an additional prod to take steps. After all, it’s only a matter of time before someone who has been hurt in a vehicular incident, terroristic or accidental, files a lawsuit on the theory that the relevant authority has had plenty of “constructive notice” that such a calamity was coming.

In response to such dangers, this author has no doubt that human creativity and techno-exuberance will produce all sorts of defense mechanisms, including traps, pop-up barriers—and maybe even kinetic projectiles and force fields.

Yet here’s a bet: in the end, when all costs and practicalities are factored in, the most commonly deployed solution will be the humble bollard. That is, those stubby vertical posts that have been used forever to guide traffic and, more recently, to protect buildings.

In fact, we already see bollards, as well as other kinds of barriers, in front of buildings and monuments that we really wish to protect, such as the White House and the Capitol in Washington, DC, as well as other prominent structures, public and private, in Manhattan and elsewhere.

We can’t pull walls around every building, or along every sidewalk, but at least we can put up bollards. Of course, bollards won’t stop every threat, but they will stop a car or truck, and that’s something.

Moreover, bollards, simple as they are today, can be improved. That is, they can be made temporary, or mobile, or self-aware, springing up only when told to do so by a sensor. Thus we can see that bollards could prove to be a hybrid of passive and active.

To be sure, the bollardization of streetscapes, low-tech or high-tech, will not be uncontroversial. By our current reckoning, bollards are ugly and obtrusive. Indeed, we might compare the process of bollard-building to the process of bar-building—that is, the protective bars and grates we often see on domestic windows. To be sure, there’s a tradeoff between aesthetics—and, in some cases, zoning or other kinds of regulation—and safety.

Of course, if bollards prove their value at saving lives, people will likely start to become accustomed to their squat and stalwart visual presence. That’s something we have learned about human nature: if something serves a good purpose, we come to like it, even love it. The little fellas will grow on us!

Still, without a doubt, it’s a shame that it’s come to this. It’s sad that the “sidewalk ballet,” as Jane Jacobs called it, needs new guardrails. But then, of course, even ballet dancers need their barre. As noted, if something is necessary, we soon learn that we can’t live without it.

James P. Pinkerton, a Fox News contributor for 20 years, served as a domestic-policy aide in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "How to Stop a Terrorist Who’s Wielding a Car"

#1 Comment By Fazal Majid On April 11, 2017 @ 11:43 pm

Square-topped bollards can also double as seating. I personally find them quite appealing, specially for busy pedestrian areas in touristic city central districts.

ISIS has repurposed consumer quadcopter drones with explosives as cruise missiles of sorts, recently killing two French soldiers in Mosul. They would probably be able to subvert self-driving cars as well.

#2 Comment By Charles Cosimano On April 12, 2017 @ 3:33 am

There is the traditional American solution. Somebody just takes out a gun and shoots the driver. With concealed carry in just about everywhere, that would be the most likely answer.

#3 Comment By James from Durham On April 12, 2017 @ 7:09 am

What a load of bollards – sorry, couldn’t resist.

#4 Comment By Harper On April 12, 2017 @ 9:49 am

At least bollards can be aesthetically improved. Bollards can be large planters, giving the option of having flowers and plants improving the look. The bollards in front of Target are large red balls, thus blending in with the overall branding and aesthetic of Target.

If governments hurry up and throw something out there, it will be ugly. But if they take some time to think about the options and how to blend it and/or use them to improve the landscape, then they can be beneficial in more ways than strictly security.

#5 Comment By John Dixon On April 12, 2017 @ 10:50 am

A moral problem does not admit of a technological solution.

#6 Comment By Quimbob On April 12, 2017 @ 11:36 am

Make giant pinball bumper bollards to bounce the vehicles away from the peds.
Safety & entertainment in one step.

#7 Comment By Matt in AK On April 12, 2017 @ 11:49 am

Hmmm, well, as a bike commuter I’m all for safer streets, and perhaps this is an answer, but with our clueless, drunk and/or distracted secular or benignly religious neighbors already killing 35,000-40,000 fellow Americans w/ motor vehicles annually, I’m interested to see a hypothetical 84 corpse increase turn motor vehicle carnage into an infrastructure priority.

Dead is dead, and drivers already kill 100 Americans per day (not counting the diabetes and cardio-vascular toll of our sedentary lives.)

Lenten Blessings+,
-Matt in AK

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 12, 2017 @ 11:57 am

What a horrible indictment of our society, that it has come to this, when before no such measures were needed. Truly, a nation of those who have no moral self control, will be controlled by others.

And to believe robots controlling us will protect us from ourselves… to become children controlled by Washington “adults” who will reserve to themselves robotic killing power over everyone.

#9 Comment By Bob Roberts On April 12, 2017 @ 1:41 pm

As James Howard Kunstler wrote in such books as The Geography of Nowhere, American streets used to be separated from sidewalks by trees, a design practice that had many aesthetic and psychological benefits. The writer above has added another argument in Kunstler’s favor.

#10 Comment By Ben Stone On April 12, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

Next up, what can we do to prevent being struck by lightening while being attacked by a Grizzly Bear and Polar Bear at once.

#11 Comment By Donxon On April 12, 2017 @ 4:37 pm

I know exactly how to stop this nonsense once and for all, and its even cheaper than bollards: stop invading and bombing Muslim countries.

#12 Comment By March Hare On April 12, 2017 @ 5:03 pm

Part of me wants to redesign the humble “Jersey Barrier” in the same way as proposed above for the bollard. They’re easily deployable, and for example could be reshaped as a park bench, flower planter, whatever.

With the help of a light duty crane truck, they can also be redeployed from time to time to keep things interesting, and to keep potential bad guys guessing.

#13 Comment By Peter Hoh On April 12, 2017 @ 7:26 pm

I’m with Matt in AK. There have been plenty of instances where incapacitated drivers, drunk drivers, and vehicles subject to “sudden unintended acceleration” have driven onto sidewalks and killed people. As long as we called them accidents there was never any need to address these incidents as design failures.

#14 Comment By Hickory Bow On April 13, 2017 @ 4:11 pm

Barriers are fine, but barriers can be destroyed to make way for anti-personnel attacks.

In that case you need something like Hornady’s Critical Duty ammunition. It will hold together just fine after penetrating a windshield or a vehicle door–or for that matter from the trunk up to the driver’s seat…

#15 Comment By GM On April 14, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

This is yet another case of anecdotal thinking driving policy. A horrible incident happens somewhere in the world and we suddenly have to deploy a safety feature that would cost us thousands and thousands of human lifetimes worth of work to ameliorate. Yet the actual risk to any particular person is so low as to be negligible. As Matt in AK noted we lose 100 plus humans a day here on our roads. But it happens every day and so is discounted versus the one off mass killing. Just like gun advocates dredge up the rare cases of a gun owner protecting himself from a criminal and ignore the mass gun deaths each year in the USA. Countries that restrict handguns have much lower overall murder rates. In Germany last year the police fired 91 total bullets. I would bet that Chicago fires that many in a month. In Detroit the taxis have bullet proof glass between the passenger and the driver, yet in Windsor Canada, just south of Detroit, you can ride up front with the driver. Pay attention to the total picture instead of being led around by the nose. Proper statistics include all of the assumptions and data used in compiling them. This is a major problem in the media coverage of the world. They misuse statistics constantly and always try to be more alarming in order to get your eyeballs.

#16 Comment By Ray Woodcock On April 14, 2017 @ 7:06 pm

Let’s see. A bollard-encased walkway in every parking lot nationwide, because pedestrians are just as vulnerable there. Barriers around every ballfield, in every schoolyard and city park. Spiky posts surrounding every schoolbus. A wall around every 5K competition on city streets; a wall around the 26 miles of the NYC marathon. A wall around every party, every bar, every wedding, and every church.

Hmm.

#17 Comment By JamesG On May 8, 2017 @ 5:57 pm

The local WalMart has had bollards that would stop any vehicle from entering the store through the entry door.

I’m sure the corporate world’s risk managers and the insurance companies that sell policies to businesses are well aware of the risk

#18 Comment By Laurie On May 29, 2017 @ 1:27 am

In Australia guns have to be licenced and cant be carried. But shops are held up daily in places and jewellery stores are attacked in broad daylight with axes and hammers breaking the display cases and walking off with the jewellery in the presence of the owners and staff. A pistol under the counter would stop it instantly. Stupidity gets rewarded every time.

#19 Comment By Laurie On May 29, 2017 @ 1:29 am

Business owners must have a gun else they are sitting ducks.