Much is being written about the Indian authorities’ lack of preparedness in the wake of the latest terror attack. Predictably, suggestions of police training, bureaucracy, and, of course, funding, are being proffered to enhance security after the fact; however, we can also look to a small town in Minnesota for some ideas on how to limit the effects of terrorists like those who brought Mumbai to a standstill last week.
On a fateful day in September 1876, the James-Younger gang robbed its last bank in Northfield, Minnesota. The gang, infamous for its reign of terror across the American West, ranged far afield, opting to rob a bank in the small town of Northfield, Minnesota. Northfield, they surmised, was far from the outlaw bands proliferating throughout the West during this time period, and was ripe for the picking; it had been spared the ravages of the Civil War, already more a decade past, and would be easily cowed into submission, robbed, and left in the dust.
Or so they thought.
The operation started poorly from the outset, and rapidly deteriorated into a catastrophe for the gang. Local Civil War veterans suspected the gang immediately as they swaggered through the streets on fine horses and with long coats; once the robbery was underway, the teller at First national Bank of Northfield resisted the gang at knifepoint, refusing to open the vault.
As chaos unfolded, word of the robbery spread through the small community; far from being cowed, Northfield’s citizens grabbed their rifles and came for a fight. Some even advanced to the higher buildings in the town to afford themselves a better shot. In the melee that followed as the band attempted to flee, two robbers were shot and killed, and several others were wounded. Two townspeople were also killed, including the bankteller, Joseph Lee Heywood. The town, not satisfied to have driven off the outlaws, organized a posse and hounded them as they attempted escape. The gang split up, and the James brothers successfully fled into the south; the Youngers, surrounded in a swamp, resisted briefly, but finally surrendered and were brought to justice.
The terrorists of Mumbai were not terribly unlike the gangs that plagued the American West at the end of the Civil War. Certainly, the outlaws sought to enrich themselves, while most modern terrorists are driven by ideology. But both groups operated within a society that was caught terribly unprepared for the tactics they employed.
Bank robbery was virtually unheard of prior to the Civil War, and largely isolated to the West immediately afterwards. The James/Younger Gang, among other reasons, chose Northfield for its distance from the Western states and territories becoming wary of such activity.
Similarly, Mumbai, a city of 19 million with no paramilitary police units or SWAT team, was likely a target difficult to resist for terrorist actors in the region as well. The question, after the fact, is not why did terrorists target Mumbai in order to advance their goals; instead, people should ask themselves why they waited so long.
The guns of Northfield effectively ended the James-Younger gang. Jesse and his brother Frank lived to fight another day, but the Youngers either died in prison, or served their sentences and were paroled, leaving their outlaw ways behind them. After his jail term Cole Younger lived out the rest of his days as a preacher. Younger, a key leader of the outlaw band, later described the resistance they met in the streets of Northfield:
Every time I saw any one [of the townspeople] with a bead on me I would drop off my horse and try to drive the shooter inside…” The townspeople, on the other hand, were shooting to kill.
Five members of the Mumbai terrorist band, meanwhile, are feared still at large. While additional funding, and better equipped and trained police forces will be the stock answer to decreasing the chances of another Mumbai, Northfield’s response to the James-Younger raid is equally worth noting: have a weapon handy at all times, make sure you can use it, and shoot to kill if your community is threatened.
In the wake of this terror attack and the (apparently) botched initial response, as well as the collapse of government services during disasters like Katrina, one would think arming society would be discussed a bit more than it is.
Here’s to hoping that the next band of savages overreach a bit, and find themselves in the modern equivalent of James-Younger’s Northfield, and polite discussion examines the benefits of a well armed citizenry ready to pull the trigger.