Herald Column, Sat 16th Sept 2017

The purpose of terrorism is the propagation of terror. And so one of the prime targets – and victims – of the terrorists are the survivors, and in particular the witnesses. As we saw in Manchester, and in London, in Paris, and Brussels, Spain and Tunisia, the impact of an attack extends, deepens, and multiplies, far beyond the physical impact of a piece of shrapnel, a blade or a bullet. A survivor witnesses not only the act of violence, but its consequence – the sight of the dying and the pain of the wounded. As they run through the blood, they will have no way of knowing whether another attack is about to happen. They will not know who to trust or when or where they are safe. Attacks – such as that in Tunisia – can take place far from home, in a place where you may not speak the language and you may not trust the police (sometimes because the attackers are disguised as police).  You can find that you are separated from a friend or a partner, with no idea whether they are still alive. The impact of such an experience can persist and deepen through your life. Soldiers have found that they can be subject to post-traumatic stress as much as ten years’ later. A civilian who is not supported by a military unit, has no military training, no background to prepare for what is happening may feel the event even more intensely.

But traditionally media, governments, professionals and the public have tended to focus on the people who are wounded and killed and bereaved by terrorists, rather than on those who witnessed the incident. This can be particularly true when many are killed and injured – in Tunisia for example where thirty British nationals were killed, and more than 600 families were affected. And when witnesses arrive home, they can feel that even if medical professionals recognise their trauma, they can treat them like other domestic trauma victims, rather than concentrating on the terrorism – the act of focused evil, and deliberate horror – which caused the trauma in the first place.

So how can we build better government systems to ensure that witnesses of terrorism are not overlooked? In the case of the Tunisian attack, it took the Prime-Minister to bring nine separate government departments together to form a joint-government unit focused on the victims of the attack. It was this leadership from the very top which allowed our national health system to develop – for the first time – new counselling programs specifically for survivors of terrorist attacks; and this was what allowed witnesses – rather than simply casualties – to become eligible to receive compensation. Since then, there have been other steps. New mandatory courses have been created, for example, to ensure that all Ambassadors are trained to respond to a terrorist crisis; the Foreign Office have upgraded their statement records to the standard of police reports. Computer systems have been changed to allow real-time access to the case files from any department and anywhere in the world.  New contracts have been put in place to allow the government teams to bring in extra support. Funding and partnerships have been formed with charities specialising in victim support. A dedicated murder unit has been formed in the Foreign Office and a new Victims of Terrorism Unit has been formed in the Home Office, with its own designated Minister.

But none of this guarantees that the witness of a terrorist attack will receive they support they need. In the end, it will still come down to the virtues of the individual government officer. This individual needs to be able to simultaneously call bereaved families, coordinate with a foreign police force, stay on top of intelligence assessments, and refine the logistics of evacuation plans. They may have to do all of this in a dangerous security environment, at a time when there is limited, and ever-changing information about what is happening on the ground. They must balance providing medical assistance for some victims, transport for the dead, immediate evacuation for the living, and a continual flow of regular and reliable information to individuals and families at the scene and at home. They need to ensure that at the end of their shift someone else can take over the relationships, and maintain them for the next shift, and ultimately that the witness is successfully handed over to someone in the UK, such as a Police Family Support Officer or a counsellor.

A government can create the culture, the resources, and the framework, to back these individuals. But no government can produce the most necessary ingredient of any emergency response – from flooding to terrorism – the compassionate imagination, which understands that the victims are not only those who were injured, that the pain is not only physical, and that the moment of the trauma can be a matter not of seconds but of years.

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