Wrong Place, Wrong Time…

By Michael W. Trott
February 19, 2019

On August 31, 2018, a 19-year-old Afghan man got off a train in Amsterdam. After walking a bit through the station, he suddenly began ruthlessly stabbing two American tourists who were just waiting for their own train to arrive.

According to the authorities, the police who patrol the station had, in fact, noticed this individual moments after he departed a train acting in a strange manner. Before they could decide how to approach him, he had already begun his heinous, unprovoked attack.

Fortunately, these officers responded quickly, shooting and wounding the man within seconds. This response surely saved many innocent lives – possibly including those of the stabbing victims, who managed to survive the horrible ordeal.

Just four days prior, my wife and I – two American tourists ourselves – stood at this very same location (near the glass elevator in this picture), sharing a breakfast sandwich and orange juice while waiting for our train to Germany.

Dutch police officers wounded a 19-year-old Afghan man suspected of stabbing two Americans in Central Station in Amsterdam on Friday. (Credit: TDWHOLESALE via Associated Press)

Dutch police officers wounded a 19-year-old Afghan man suspected of stabbing two Americans in Central Station in Amsterdam on Friday. (Credit: TDWHOLESALE via Associated Press)

Later, after hearing of the attack, I immediately recalled what I had written in my soon-to-be-released book, The Protected, on the risks of being at the “wrong place at the wrong time.”

Anyone who knows me also knows that I’ve traveled a lot and still do today. As I say frequently: For those of us who travel, we must recognize that we increase our odds of being at the wrong place at the wrong time during each and every trip we make outside of our “comfort zone.”

If you’ve traveled extensively over the years, you probably have your own stories of being caught off-guard during some kind of incident, being a victim yourself, or perhaps only missing a major accident or attack by a few hours or days.

I’ve had too many of these experiences in my lifetime – the 1988 Ramstein air show disaster comes to mind as I was on my way to attend the memorial service on the 30th anniversary of the crash in Ramstein, Germany two days before this attack. (Some people might consider me unlucky to have witnessed some terrible events, but I also consider myself extremely lucky since I’m able to write this now.)

My point is, for security professionals or just everyday citizens, we must remember to be on higher alert when we’re out of our familiar environments. While we often want to soak up the local sights, sounds and aromas as we travel and enjoy all of the new experiences, we must always keep one toe dipped in the waters of situational awareness. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to let your mind wander and be unaware of what might be right in front of you – which might be someone or something that can harm you, your family, or those under your care or protection.

It is possible to balance both enjoyment and caution without fear or anxiety taking over. But it does take some effort, a little discipline and sometimes just the right amount of listening to our “sixth sense.”

On the day my wife and I were at the train station, I had a slight uneasy feeling that I can’t put into words. My eyes were constantly in a slow-motion scan – probably just second nature and automatic programming from my profession. Even my wife commented, “Would you relax? You’re on vacation!” She can tell you that these moments of hypersensitivity and situational awareness have sometimes been the reason for a few distracted date nights, or slightly unromantic strolls down the back streets of some of the most romantic cities in the world.

We probably weren’t in any danger that day, but caution is better than carelessness. My wife probably wasn’t aware why I chose the location where we were standing – with our backs against the glass elevator so I could see what was going on around us. (FYI, this is why police and security-minded people hate to sit in restaurants and venues with their backs to the door.)

My wife probably also hadn’t noticed what I’d done with our rolling suitcases: I had casually placed them around us so someone couldn’t just walk up to us without having something in the way. This wasn’t some kind of planned defensive tactic, but a simple reaction to being in an environment that was new to me and which left me feeling slightly off-guard.

These simple decisions cost us nothing, yet gave us a small measure of security that could have been useful in the event of unexpected danger.

It isn’t just the knife-wielding terrorist, gunshots or a potential kidnapping situation that you watch out for. It could be a tsunami, pick-pocket, mentally ill person on the sidewalk, icy steps, or even crossing a street in London where you’ve forgotten to look right first and almost stepped in front of a bus. Any of these dangers can land you in a hospital or worse.

I don’t share this to tell you exactly how you should travel or to make you paranoid. I’m just trying to remind you to be more aware of what’s around you when you’re out of your element, in large crowds or in areas we refer to as – it disgusts me to say it – “soft targets” for those wanting to cause harm. Unfortunately, these targets are in areas where groups of tourists may congregate and are easily distracted.

You should enjoy your travels. But please, increase your situational awareness where appropriate and have a general plan for unexpected events that could occur around you – especially if it’s your responsibility to protect those you’re traveling with.

For more interesting reading see this article on ‘Terrorist motive’ for stabbing of two US tourists in Amsterdam from The Guardian.

Safe travels.