SALT LAKE CITY — Early Friday morning, authorities learned that a plane's flight path had changed, moving to impact over Atlanta. From a closed situation room, the authorities decided to take the plane down midflight.
Though the scenario is just a simulation, law students had to handle it with the utmost sincerity as they navigated a confusing mock-up of a series of diplomatic crisis and terrorist attacks, including a plane hijacking and a shooting on a college campus.
Amos Guiora, a professor of law who teaches counterterrorism, national security and international relations for the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, crafted the crisis scenario with five of his students, organizing a fully scripted event to test another group of students on their ability to handle the decision-making and legal ramifications of countering a terrorist attack.
"The kinds of dilemmas they are confronted with, you could go in there and literally feel that you are in the White House (Situation) Room," Guiora said. "The scenarios are incredibly realistic.”
Guiora said the decisions students were asked to make had to reflect real legal analysis.
During a mock press conference, Joshua Thatcher, 27, a second-year law student, fielded questions from a hostile press that scrutinized the decision to down the plane, which resulted in a mass loss of life. The scenario was further complicated as the students initially tried to force the plane, from a British airline and with British nationals on board, to land before eventually deciding to shoot the plane down before it reached Atlanta.
"It’s stressful, I mean, we’ve been here for about an hour and a half and we have been grilled repeatedly," Thatcher said. "One thing that it has taught me is not to pass such quick judgment on those in power who are making those decisions."
Thatcher said the decision-making process was constantly in flux, with a barrage of information flowing in from various sources, providing both useful information and information that was intended to distract the decision-making.
"I know that there was a number of 'red herrings' built in," Andrew Radcliffe said. "There was a couple of random one-off questions about the DNI (director of national intelligence) being kidnapped in Russia, that's just fake."
Radcliffe, a former student who had previously done both the crisis response and the simulation design classes, returned to help enact the simulation.
"One of the biggest things is, when you read the news, a lot of times you are reading it through one scope," Radcliffe said, after playing his role as a member of the press. "This helps you introduce a more interdisciplinary scope of considering the legal ramifications and political ramifications."
Questions about the false sources of information added to the scrutiny of the decision-making, and students had to justify both how they determined information to be truthful and answer to why they may or may not have acted on information that was difficult to corroborate.
Guiora said the scenario was meant to closely reflect real world events like military action in Syria and a terrorist attack in Sweden.
When students were asked to justify their actions, they had to consider both the events of the scenario and the real world events unfolding simultaneously.
"We had to know what was happening in Syria and we had to know how our decisions today would further exacerbate that situation," Alyssa Wood, 25, a third-year law student, said.
Wood, who played the role of legal support, said the difficult part was not having enough time to think through a decision. Before the class, she said, Wood often felt very critical of how people handled events.
“You stand back and you say, ‘Oh that was a very bad decision, why would they do that,'" Wood said.
Friday's exercise changed her perspective.
"You have to do what you think and feel is best, based on the information that you have," she said.
The students ended the simulation, the culmination of a semester of preparation, with a mock congressional inquiry where they defended the decisions they had just made.
Guiora said students will also face an oral exam, where they will have time to reflect on their choices and analyze them more thoroughly.