The San Bernardino Terror Attack and Lessons from The Northfield Minnesota Raid of 1876

We have a President who refuses to acknowledge the nature of the enemy we face (radical Islamic terrorism); he consistently demonstrates his lack of wisdom or conviction to take the necessary actions to protect us against it. We also have feckless leadership in Congress on both sides of the aisle who only say empty words to gain favor with the press and their base to maintain their positions of power while doing nothing of substance.

If we are to be protected, we must rely upon ourselves.

On September 7, 1876, three men rode into the bustling town of Northfield, Minnesota. Several townspeople thought they looked suspicious because their horses were of unusually high quality and they wore matching dusters (to cover their weapons).

These riders (who eventually grew to number eight men) were Jesse and Frank James, the Younger brothers (Cole, Jim and Bob), Charlie Pitts, Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell. They had come to rob the bank.

The towns folk had other ideas.

To this day, teller Joseph Lee Heywood is a local hero, shot dead by Frank James as Heywood repeatedly refused to open the bank safe after being beaten to the floor and threatened with death. James fled the bank with only $26.70.

Townsmen (many who were Civil War veterans) grabbed old but serviceable weapons and began firing at the outlaws on the street while yelling at townspeople to clear the area. The shocked robbers fled the town leaving two dead (Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell), with every member of the gang wounded except Jesse James. Two townspeople were also dead, the teller and a Swede who apparently became confused and couldn’t understand the shouts to get out of the street to avoid the shooting.

In describing the scene, Western story teller Louis L’Amour liked to say the gang was “shot to doll rags.”  It took just seven minutes for the robbery to fail because of the swift actions of the men in the town in spotting the robbery and acting.

The citizens were relentless. As many as 2000 men from Northfield and neighboring towns chased the gang members for weeks, eventually capturing the Youngers (and killing Charlie Pitt). The James brothers escaped after splitting from the others a week after the robbery.

We can learn much from this historic narrative. It runs contrary to the fictional western movies where a band of outlaws come in and take over a town and terrorize the helpless citizens, a popular Hollywood theme.  In reality an armed citizenry, leavened with battle-seasoned veterans, sized up the situation and took immediate action, sheltering their women and children and dealing swift and unrelenting justice to the barbarians who threatened their civilization.

Our fight against the global Islamic jihad has had a number of paradigm shifts. Prior to 9/11, pilots and flight crews were trained to go along with hijackers as the best way to protect passengers. The historic object of the hijackers was to safely get to a location with hostages or make demands for their release. After the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, that all changed. In real time, some passengers on Flight 93 learned on their cell phones what had happened in New York and Washington at the Pentagon and overwhelmed any terrorists in the passenger cabin and were assaulting the cockpit door when the terrorists decided to crash the plane near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The paradigm shifted in real time.

The Paris attacks gave us another paradigm shift (or should have). There was talk about the “hostages” at the Bataclan concert hall while the event was unfolding, but we should really know better by now. Islamic terrorists do not take hostages in the middle of such attacks; they massacre people. When they have the leisure to do so they may take women or girls to sell as sex slaves or men and children to behead at a later time for propaganda purposes, but in a terror operation where they are certain to be killed in the middle of a city like Paris if they stay put for very long, there is no recent history of hostage taking, just slaughter.

When journalists suggest that they are taking hostages, they are reporting the last war, a failure of imagination.

Northfield in 1876 teaches four lessons we must learn if we are to defend ourselves in this new reality.

  1. The government cannot protect us in our homes, work or leisure.  No sheriff stopped the James-Younger gang. Even if we are willing to give up all of our civil liberties it is doubtful Big Brother could have averted the San Bernardino attack. Destroying IS, ISIL, ISIS, Daesh or whatever you want to call it in the Middle East might slow recruitment of jihadi wannabe attackers here and around the civilized world but will not eliminate them completely. We have entered a world of perpetual martyrdom, of lunatic Islamists who believe not only in their holy cause of jihad and their other-worldly reward but that their martyrdom will ignite further revolution. Even if we someday elect leaders at all levels with spine, it will take a long time to minimize the existential threat of random violence. These San Bernardino terrorists do not appear to have a large digital footprint that could have been detected. There was apparently an illegal straw man gun purchase of at least some of the weapons by a friend. It could not have been detected, and it could not have been responded to quickly enough.  Even when police responded, they could not just charge in. They did not know how many terrorists there were. They did not know if doors were mined with IEDs that could kill or injure officers or civilians if breached (that apparently was the case; the bombs did not detonate). They did not know if quickly breaching could result in greater civilian casualties. Time was needed – even if they arrived instantly on the scene – to gather intelligence, assess the situation, formulate plans, and implement them. Time had to pass, and in such situations every minute means innocent lives lost as terrorists engage in their massacres.
  2. Vigilance cannot be trumped by political correctness.   The San Bernardino massacre might have been averted had the neighbor(s) who noticed something suspicious actually reported it, but they said they did not because they were afraid of being accused of racial profiling. And that’s not an unreasonable fear. When U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch makes a big deal about violence against Muslims in the wake of 9/11 (where there was an astounding lack of anti-Muslim backlash violence in the U.S.) and says her “greatest fear” is anti-Muslim rhetoric, then people have reason to fear reporting suspicious activities. When she pledges to prosecute people for discrimination against Muslims, this trickles down not only to civilians but all levels of law enforcement.    That means that even had the neighbors reported their suspicions to local law enforcement or federal authorities, those reports might not have been effectively acted upon.       Nonetheless we must report what we see without fear of reprisals from Social Justice Warriors like the Attorney General, and fight to support those who do make such reports.  Making reports, even if they prove to be unfounded, should not be discouraged.
  3. Restricting gun ownership is the opposite of what is needed.   That is like saying we should lock passengers into their seats in airplanes in response to the heroes in Shanksville, so only those terrorists with box cutters can cut their way out and roam the plane. First responders cannot arrive in time and gain enough situational awareness to know to storm a building as quickly as armed people inside can respond to the situation. Cops cannot be everywhere, and every event cannot have enough armed guards to make a difference. A few armed, trained civilians could have taken down the shooters and saved many lives before the police arrived on the scene both in San Bernardino and at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris. The terrorists’ bulletproof vests (if they had them; I’ve also seen them described as tactical vests for holding ammo clips) would not protect the legs or head or arms, or keep the shooter from being knocked down and being injured by the hydrostatic shock of impact. While many people would never consider carrying a gun at a holiday party, those folks wouldn’t have to; it would only have taken four or five armed citizens to insure these two were taken out, wounded, scared off, or sent out wounded to leave an easier trail for law enforcement. These terrorists had experience with target practice but expected a soft target; probably the shock of being shot back at would have disrupted their attack or even caused them to abandon their weapons.  As Bruce Lee said, boards do not hit back.
  4. Open carry is not the answer; concealed carry is.  The James-Younger crowd rode into a town they thought was filled with farmers and merchants. They had sized up a number of towns before deciding on this one and had chosen it as a “soft target.” The guns were out of sight. Open carry makes the armed person the terrorists’ first target. Concealed carry leaves the terrorist wondering who might be armed and who isn’t. This is why air marshals are in plain clothes. Would-be terrorists do not know who is armed or if there is one on a flight. A soft target becomes a potentially hard target. The San Bernardino terrorists apparently had another attack planned after this one, possibly a police station or military target; some theorize they chose this target first so they were guaranteed a soft target success in case they failed in the second. If they knew that there was a possibility that there were armed people at this party they would not have considered this a soft target.  Open carry advertises what is a hard or soft target; wide-spread concealed carry makes ANY target potentially hard and may discourage attacks.

I’m sure my friends on the Left would say that we cannot go back to the wild west or vigilante justice. They are ignoring the fact that the Islamist terrorists have already brought us back to the seventh century with their jihadi assaults. Vigilante justice was often an organized community response to the barbarism of the outlaw when no law enforcement was available. Life is not always what it appears in a Hollywood western.  For example, San Francisco citizens joined together several times in an organized Committee of Vigilance  (vigilantes) when the existing civil government was not handling problems (or was part of the problem).

We have to arm ourselves and be prepared to defend ourselves. As it happens, I was born about four miles from where those two terrorists went on their rampage last week. I grew up in San Bernardino (none of us from there pronounce the second “r” either, so don’t feel bad). This kinda hits home and tells me it can happen anywhere. There are no safe places. But I cannot legally carry a concealed weapon in California (California is not big on reciprocity for CCPs).  If I had had the misfortune to be at the Inland Regional Center December 2, I would have been as unable to defend myself and others as anyone in that hall because California politicians have determined to keep folks safe from gunslingers like me.

I’m only in California a few days a month these days. But I’m going to look into finding a sympathetic jurisdiction for a California CCP. I don’t want to be a mourned victim but a proactive defender – wherever I am.




  1. I hear that a county sheriff in the eastern Sacramento River delta (between the Bay area and Sacramento) has been granting CCW permits and getting a lot of heat over it.


    1. Very true. If a few of the teachers who demonstrated such courage in the various school shootings, for example, had been armed, the death tolls would have been much lower. I recall one college incident (too lazy to look it up) in the South I believe that was stopped by an armed student who retrieved his weapon from his car if I remember correctly. So your point is well taken.


  2. An very interesting and well written article. I particularly enjoyed lesson 4. on the superiority of concealed over open carry, a distinction I have often debated. I believe the difference is nicely stated in a song which Townes Van Zant called “a collection of his greatest hit”:

    Pancho was a bandit boy
    His horse was fast as polished steel
    Wore his gun outside his pants
    For all the honest world to feel


  3. I’m always a little miffed when I see the term “Social Justice Warrior” . . . and here it’s no different. The article could have been just as strong by relying on reason alone; unfortunately right-wing bias has snuck in . . . in particular, in point number 2:

    “Vigilance cannot be trumped by political correctness.” Nobody wants to trump vigilance with political correctness (whatever that even means), they just want to stop unnecessary violence caused by an “us versus them” mentality. You talk about straw men, this *is* the very definition of a straw man argument. Who is trying to say we shouldn’t be aware of our surroundings while also being politically correct? And why are these things seen as mutually exclusive. Guess what, I can be aware of my surroundings *and* not have to think all Muslims are bad.

    “The San Bernardino massacre might have been averted had the neighbor(s) who noticed something suspicious actually reported it, but they said they did not because they were afraid of being accused of racial profiling. And that’s not an unreasonable fear. When U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch makes a big deal about violence against Muslims in the wake of 9/11 (where there was an astounding lack of anti-Muslim backlash violence in the U.S.) and says her “greatest fear” is anti-Muslim rhetoric, then people have reason to fear reporting suspicious activities. When she pledges to prosecute people for discrimination against Muslims, this trickles down not only to civilians but all levels of law enforcement. That means that even had the neighbors reported their suspicions to local law enforcement or federal authorities, those reports might not have been effectively acted upon.”

    Really? Do you really believe that we don’t profile people . . . do you think *less* Arab looking people get searched at the TSA checkpoints than white folks? Do you think *less* black people are reported as “suspicious individuals” even though people may be worried they’ll be thought of as racist? My guess is the data on that argument doesn’t hold up… you get five teenage white people in a group at the Mall of America and five teenage black people in a group and I can almost guarantee which group the mall security are watching. Is it right? Hell no! Does it happen? What do you think?

    Just because the AG is worried about anti-Muslim (and anti-black) rhetoric doesn’t mean the people who know what they’re doing (and people who are ignorant) don’t rely on profiling. A better question is, should they profile the way they do? In some sense there’s a solid argument to be made for NOT profiling . . . because, guess what, the easiest way to beat a profile is to not fit into what one would expect. Anyway, I think it’s OK to just take what she’s saying as she’s saying it . . . that is, stop with this idea that all Muslims are bad or that Islam in general is any more violent of a religion than, say, Christianity. (And, call them Social Justice Warriors all day long, but this is the same point the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to make–stop with this idea that all black people are bad or that five black teenagers in a group need to be immediately seen as “suspicious”).

    Still, will it really change how people report things? My guess is not… that’s kinda the point.

    For suspicious looking “would-be” terrorists, call 1-800-CALL-FBI . . . that’s not a difficult number to remember. If you see something, say something; go to the Department of Homeland Security’s website to read all about that. Or, idk, do what anyone would do and call 9-1-1. Those reports can be made anonymous very easily.

    So, I really don’t think it makes sense to argue that people are all that afraid of reporting suspicious things because of being perceived as racist… it’s easy enough to make anonymous tips either on the phone or online.

    “Nonetheless we must report what we see without fear of reprisals from Social Justice Warriors like the Attorney General, and fight to support those who do make such reports. Making reports, even if they prove to be unfounded, should not be discouraged.”

    Yeah, exactly. Report what you think needs to be reported; let the authorities take it from there.

    See, I don’t think anyone is discouraging reporting… there are more numbers to call, more ways to talk to the right people than there ever have been before. What *is* being discouraged, however, is the lumping of 1.6 Billion people into a group that makes up less than one half of one half of one percent of that group (the best estimates, and most conservative, as taken from the Christian Science Monitor, say that 325,000 of the 1.6 Billion are *at risk* of becoming radicalized–a vastly larger number than those already radicalized).

    Beyond that, it’s a fairly OK article. You’re right that citizens of Northfield with their guns took care of business. Times were also different back then . . . so, it’s not exactly a fair comparison. The truth is, the Swede, Nicholas Gustafson, would have had tens of thousands of times the risk of dying standing in the street these days due to vehicular traffic than he would have risk of dying by terrorist attack. I’d like to see you make an argument that actually takes into consideration the risk of being killed by armed bandits at that time versus the risk of being killed by terrorists at the present. Because that’s the heart of the argument in some ways. Sad, but true . . . it’s a numbers game.

    If you’re tens of thousands of times more likely to die by being shot with a legal gun purchased and possessed by your drunk neighbor than you are likely to die by being killed in a terrorist attack, perhaps it’s time to start thinking about controlling the former without really worrying much about the latter. Perhaps, in fact, they’re totally different arguments. But, I’ll leave it at that… I’m OK with the present gun debates going on right now. It’s not an easy argument. But, your #2 point is just right-wing B.S. and I couldn’t read this, say, “good article,” and *not* point out that fact.


    1. Anton – Thanks for the thoughtful reply. My problem with the AG is three-fold. First, she is factually incorrect. According to FBI statistics, of which she should be aware, there were very few acts of violence against Muslims (or those perceived to be Muslims) following 9/11. I remember so clearly warning my Muslim friends and clients to be careful and display their American flags openly – we didn’t know what to expect, and frankly I expected the worst. I was even worried that my wife – whose ethnicity is not clear to given her dark pigmentation (yes, I am one of those who *gasp* married outside my race) might be targeted. Even by CAIR’s count I believe there were only two or three homicides (two who were Sikhs, by ignorant idiots, if I am not mistaken) and some cases the police and FBI investigated and failed to call hate crimes (robberies where racial insults were used, etc.).

      She is also on shaky legal (constitutional) ground in saying she will prosecute speech; the vast majority of what the Left considers “hate speech” (most words that go against what they believe and sends them into their safe spaces where they watch videos of puppies and play with Play Doh ®) cannot be prosecuted. Even “inciting speech” is tough to prosecute. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Brandenburg v. Ohio (395 U.S. 444), found that, “…the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” (Emphasis added.) Thus despicable statements like “All Muslims should die” or “All Muslims should be deported” (or even “All Vegans should be forced to eat Big Macs”) are not prosecutable because they are not the mob leader saying to the fired up crowd, “Let’s go over to Joe Johnson’s house a block away from here and lynch him right now!”

      However, AG Lynch’s statements can have a chilling effect on speech, which is also something that the Supreme Court has always been concerned about (and we all should be). Under the color of authority of her office she is claiming she will prosecute people who threaten violence against Muslims or speak harshly against Muslims by implication. Her duty is NOT to chill speech. She has gone beyond the bounds of her duties and into the realm of social activist.

      So when the AG talks about anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11 she is factually wrong and simply inciting. This is either pandering to her Muslim audience or a declaration of policy or both. It is not what the top law enforcement official in the administration should be doing, in my opinion. This from someone who had higher hopes for her after the politicized Holder Justice Department.

      AG Lynch also stated that her “greatest fear” was anti-Muslim rhetoric. Here is our top law enforcement official, whose FBI Director stated they have 900 ongoing investigations of ISIS-inspired or related terror investigations in every state, saying she is more worried about mean words against the religion of the perpetrators than the victims.

      Can you not understand that this creates a little cognitive dissonance in most people who hear this? A bit of a “Say what?!!!!” phenomenon. Where are her priorities? This is the person who is distributing the law enforcement resources on a national level. And she is saying she will be putting them on prosecuting those who incite to violence against Muslims, not terrorists themselves. That doesn’t appear rational in light of what FBI Director Comey just reported to Congress.

      And you are rarely shot by your drunk neighbor unless you break into his house. The majority of shooting deaths are suicides. If you are not involved in a gang or the drug trade, or are a clerk at an all-night gas station, convenience or liquor store, your chance of being a gun homicide victim goes way down.

      You also demonstrate the usual lack of understanding of profiling. Race, ethnicity or national origin is only one factor used in police profiling. My law enforcement days are long ago, but it sorta made sense if you knew that the drug or sex trade in a part of town was run by a gang made up of members of a certain race from a certain country who were 16 to 28 years old (they either were killed, wised up or were in prison after that age) you acknowledged that fact. If you saw a car driving slowly through that neighborhood at 3 AM with four males who fit that profile you might pay attention, even stop it. If it was filled with four people of the same race and national origin, two males and two females, in their fifties, you wouldn’t give it a second thought. A profile is based on a set of characteristics, not a single characteristic. In police work, at least, it is driven by experience. Are you saying we should ignore the fact, for example, that crime is controlled by, say, an Irish gang or the Russian mob? That this should not be a factor in police work? Isn’t that profiling?

      And can we PLEASE stop with the trope that if we say “radical Muslim terrorists” we are saying all Muslims are terrorists or evil or bad? Sheesh! Even Trump, who is a blow-hard and idjit (as Bobby used to say; sorry, Trump fans, he’s fun but a loose canon) doesn’t say that. If we meant all Muslims we wouldn’t have to use qualifiers…

      Sorry if you object to the term SJW and think it shows bias. Of course I am biased, as are you. I don’t pretend not to be, as so many in the news business do. In my checkered past I spent many years associated with a Major Metropolitan Newspaper and saw first hand the bias in the news department, and the denial the editors and writers had. I agree with Bernard Goldberg that most aren’t even aware of their bias; they think they are being even-handed, that their biases are just how reasonable people process information.

      I know better. When someone, like the AG, places their leftist social agenda before their oath of office to protect and defend the US Constitution, when they pander to a small minority like the Muslim community and lack the courage to call that community to denounce the terrorism that a minority within their community is wreaking, then they are acting as warriors for social justice as a greater calling than their sworn oaths to the American people. Just my opinion, which I am still free to air.

      People ARE afraid to report things. A neighbor of the San Bernardino murderes expressly stated so. This is not theory. CBS News reported, “A man who has been working in the area said he noticed a half-dozen Middle Eastern men in the area in recent weeks, but decided not to report anything since he did not wish to racially profile those people.”

      So no, my second point is not BS.


  4. The Defeat of Jesse James Days in Northfield, MN is one of the biggest all volunteer festivals in Minnesota. Each year we have over 100,000 people come to town to watch and take part in numerous bank raid re-enactments in which we tell the story of how the town rose up against the outlaws. It’s very powerful and something we are very proud of. We don’t feel like the bad guys should be celebrated, but we celebrate the fact that our townspeople had the courage to stand up for what they believed in and fought for our city.


  5. Great article Squid! Well written and makes good sense. We all need to be armed and trained on how to use a firearm. Gun free zones are potential killing zones. The government can not protect us, we must be prepared to defend ourselves our family and friends.


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