What to Do in a Terrorist Attack or Mass Shooting

Over the last several years, we have watched in horror the various mass shootings and terrorist attacks involving tourists. The attacks have shattered lives in many cities and countries, such as, London, Madrid, Mumbai, USA, Tunisia, Egypt, Tel-Aviv, and Paris, to name only a few. And the attacks continue. Slow and ineffective responses, sadly, increased the carnage. Although travel is supposed to be fun—and it usually is—we would be remiss to omit discussing what to do in the unlikely circumstance that you are caught in a mass shooting event while traveling. This post is to inform you of what to do; and give you the confidence to do what you can to protect yourself and others traveling with you.

There are only two things to remember.

  1. Correctly assess the situation
  2. Act (run, hide, or attack)

If you are out of danger, but find yourself in the role of a bystander, there are important actions you can take. Read on.

Assessing the situation

Correctly and quickly assess unusual noises and actions.  Assume odd noises and activity are not normal.  For example, pops, cracks and bangs could be the sounds of celebratory fireworks; but you should assume trouble and exit unless it’s very clear fireworks are expected.  Likewise, assume screaming, running, or any atypical noises are trouble unless you verify that things are OK.  For that matter, the Aurora theater shooting in Colorado taught us that even where certain noises are expected (shooting, screams, etc. in a violent movie) we should check to see if the noises really are part of the movie. If something seems off, don’t assume it’s safe until you check.


Once you realize that you are in a mass shooting, ACT.

Run, hide, or attack as appropriate.

If it looks like trouble, exit quickly if you can, hide in a safe spot if you can’t, and if neither option is possible, attack what’s attacking you!  Before mass shootings became common, it was typical to rely on running and hiding, but recent events have taught us that sometimes escape or hiding isn’t possible and the only thing that would have saved lives is an immediate counter attack, preferably by a number of people.  As horrifying as that prospect sounds, being part of a large crowd that is mowed down systematically isn’t working.  Keep in mind that even a quick response by police is too late when terrorists or mass shooters use automatics and other weapons.  If more of us had it set in our minds that we’d fight when that was the best option, these attacks could be stopped or slowed to allow others to escape.

Additionally, at this point terrorists and shooters know that they will achieve their objectives with no resistance until the authorities arrive.  There is no reason for them to question attacking us until we fight back.  How do we know this is a better plan?  For years, women were told that if someone tried to rape them they should yell for help but not fight because they would be more badly hurt.  That didn’t actually work so women began to fight back. That is not to say it stopped all attacks or injury but it turned out that trusting a rapist not to injure or kill you was really stupid.  The same is true with shooters unless anyone can provide an example of attackers who stopped killing civilians just because they begged for their lives and stood still. No, I didn’t think so, so it’s time to act differently.

To recap:

  • If you can escape, RUN.
  • If you cannot, HIDE.
  • If you can do neither and you are close enough, ATTACK the shooter.


Bystanders are super important. There is much they can do. If they are close enough, stop the shooter in whatever way is necessary. If they are not close enough, get to a safe place and call the police and medical help. If possible, take pictures or videos. When safe, see if you can help others.

Case Study 1: The attack on travelers in Tunisia was particularly gruesome because people did not know what to do. In this situation, tourists were on a beach when the attacker started shooting. Some bystanders heroically sheltered the tourists, preventing additional carnage. Other well-meaning bystanders tried pleading with the shooter to stop. In this case, there could have been fewer deaths if the bystanders had attacked the shooter to stop him. Some correctly called the police and medical aid services.  However, this attack makes the point raised above – pleading with the terrorists was futile and added to the death toll; fighting them would have been more to the point.

Case Study 2: Remember the heroes on the French train? They recognized that a mass shooting was about to start. They were close enough to attack the shooter and were determined to prevent him from hurting the passengers in the train. The heroes were wounded and could have died from doing this, but happily they didn’t. Most importantly, they quickly acted, preventing a train full of people from being shot. Others contacted the police and emergency services to aid the heroes.  This is a great example of why fighting works, and there wasn’t a better alternative. The terrorists were caught off guard and over-powered. Many lives were saved.

Case Study 3:  The Paris Attacks.  We’ll never know what would have happened if café patrons, concert attendees and so on had charged the attackers but we do know that the tragic deaths of so many occurred because they couldn’t escape or hide effectively.

Closing Words

It is extremely unlikely that you will find yourself in a mass shooting event while traveling, but it is important for you to have the confidence and know what to do in unforeseen circumstances.

You have only two things to remember—

  1. Assess the situation quickly and
  2. Act (run, hide, attack)

And if you are a bystander, keep yourself safe and help.

Other sources: The best video we have found is from the USA FBI. Provided as a public service, it is an excellent way to learn what to do, and the video is only 5 minutes long. And the Washington Post’s piece about what to do if A Gunman Opens Fire in Your Building is a quick read and also really good.

Cover Photo Description: People gather outside Le Carillon, one of the attack sites in Paris, November 15, 2015.                                                               Cover Photo Credit: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

We wish you many safe and happy travels!

No Responses

Leave a Reply