Have-a-go heroics: Be afraid of your own bravery
You might be braver than you think, as one man discovered
In 2011, British television historian Dan Snow found himself caught up in a brutal street riot, as English cities erupted into the worst disorder they had seen in decades.
It was the third night of rioting in the UK's capital city and, as Snow stood in west London, he saw a looter emerge from a shoe shop, carrying a bundle of stolen trainers. Snow made a split-second decision, barging into the young man and pinning him to the ground until police arrived. Snow was hailed as a hero, while 24-year-old looter Karl Jensen was eventually jailed for three years.
This week, Snow was reminded of that angry summer evening by the comments of British Conservative Party MP Tobias Ellwood, another “have-a-go hero”, who was praised widely last year for stepping in during the Westminster Bridge terror attack. Ellwood gave emergency medical help to police officer Keith Palmer, who later died. Speaking at the inquest on Monday, Ellwood, an army veteran, urged members of the public to follow his lead and “step forward” during future “terrorist” incidents.
But what does it take for an ordinary member of the public to intervene in a serious crime? How do you know how you would behave? And what should you do if you’re faced with such a dangerous situation? Dan Snow gives his advice.
You might be braver than you think
We’ve all considered it. What would I do, right now, if a passenger on this train carriage started attacking us? Or if a machete-wielding robber ran into this restaurant? Some of us assume we already know the answer. “Oh yes, I’d definitely jump in to help,” we might think, or “No way, I’d be far too afraid.”
But Snow says it’s impossible to know how you’ll react until you’re there, and the danger is staring you in the face.
“It was completely a spur of the moment decision,” he says of his heroics during the 2011 London riots. “It could have gone very badly wrong, he could have had a weapon or his mate could have intervened. I was very lucky away to get away with it.”
Snow says he never considered himself a hero, and isn’t even sure if he’d make the same decision today. Snow, who has presented a number of programmes on 20th-century military history, thinks his academic research bears this out.
“I’ve studied a lot of military history, and I’ve met a lot of veterans, and what they all agree on is that you can almost never tell how people are going to respond in a certain situation.”
A “have-a-go” hero, he says, “could be young, old, male, female – I don’t think it’s a precise personality trait”.
“And of course a lot of it comes down to how you’re feeling on the day and at that moment. I just happened to be in a particular time and place in my life when I thought that would be the appropriate thing to do.”
Don’t be a bystander
The UK government’s official advice for terror attacks, broadcast through a series of television adverts earlier this year, tells us to “run, hide and tell”. In other words: don’t try to fight attackers – just get out of there.
But Snow says any blanket rule on how to behave in a dangerous situation is misguided. We need to evaluate each emergency on its own unique dangers. In a number of recent terror attacks, he says, heroism of ordinary members of the public may well have proved crucial.
He praises the “brave people” who threw pint glasses and pub furniture at terrorists during the London Bridge attack in June of last year, in which three men murdered eight on a bustling Saturday night in the capital. He also points to 9/11, when one of the four hijacked planes was commandeered by passengers and flown into a field in rural Pennsylvania. With the plane (flight United 93) en route to Washington DC, the actions of the passengers almost certainly saved hundreds of lives, he says.
“I hope that I would respond in that way as well, [because] I think we’re all responsible for security. It’s impossible to have a blanket rule – you just have to make a judgment at the time.”
But stay safe
That said, it’s important to know our limits, Snow says. There are some situations in which our intervention is not going to make anybody safer. Thinking back to his split-second decision to tackle a rioter, he says he’s not even sure he’d make the same choice now.
“If I was with my kids it would be different. If I saw they had a suicide vest on, it would be different. Everyone has to make decisions for themselves. They must have good reasons.”
It’s much better to shut these dangerous incidents down before they happen than to rely on civilian intervention, he says.
Indeed, we hear all about the cases that end well, with the assailant handed safely over the police. But there are also many tragic stories of intervention gone wrong, such as a 25-year-old man discovered in Birmingham in 2016. The unnamed Good Samaritan was stabbed after trying to help a schoolgirl who was being slapped in the face by a teenage thug. He was later pictured lying in a pool of blood.
The reaction might surprise you
You might be risking your life by apprehending a violent criminal, but at least you’ll get some brownie points. Everybody loves a hero, after all.
Or so you’d think. The public reaction can be surprising, Snow says, particularly in the era of social media, when almost any action can be twisted into an excuse for criticism. In the months after his heroics, Snow received much praise for his quick thinking, but also received a considerable amount of online abuse.
“Some people were very complimentary, and other people said it’s a bit unedifying to see a wealthy person rugby-tackling marginalised members of the community, who are largely looting out of desperation,” he says. “I had the whole gamut really.
“I had people saying ‘what is a thuggish rich boy like you do attacking people in the streets’. Nothing has ever happened on social media that uniformly complimented.”
– © The Daily Telegraph