Can we expect counter terrorism perfection?

In baseball, a batter that achieves a .300 average (i.e. 3 hits in every 10 tries) is considered a success.  A goaltender with a save percentage of over .900 (meaning he saves nine out of every ten shots he faced) is considered good.  Other professions undoubtedly have their own measures of success.

So why is it that in the counter terrorism world the only acceptable result is perfection?  We have come to expect that every single terrorist will be caught and every single plot will be foiled.  Is this reasonable?

I was reminded of this while reading the challenge faced by the FBI in the current wave of individuals inspired by the Islamic State (see the entire article here).  The Bureau is acting more quickly than usual in wrapping up cases for fear that delay may lead to a terrorist attack.  This shorter investigation may lead to a weaker criminal case down the road but no one wants something to happen on his watch.  As Chicago defence lawyer Thomas A. Durkin put it: “We don’t expect to eradicate crime, but we’ve made a political promise that we’re going to stop every act of terrorism…it’s ridiculous”.

Why do we demand that our security and intelligence agencies prevent every terrorist act?  We don’t make similar requests of law enforcement vis-a-vis murders or burglaries.  We don’t make lifeguards promise to stop all drownings.  We don’t force doctors to save every patient.

It doesn’t seem fair, does it?   So why the unreasonable expectations?

I think it all goes back to the nature of terrorism.  It is a crime akin to murder, but has so much else attached to it.  Ideology. A sense of punishment on a government or a whole society.  Links to individuals in far-flung places.  The markings of a long and complicated campaign seeking to impose change through violence.  It frightens us like no other crime.  And we want it to stop.

As RAND terrorism expert Brian Jenkins famously said “terrorism is theatre”.  We are paying customers with front row seats.  And we shudder at the performance.

But back to the role of those paid to stop these events.  Can we expect perfection?  The answer is clearly no as the events last October in Canada demonstrated.  Neither attack was anyone’s “fault”.  It is improbable that anything else could have been done to prevent either incident.  And since we cannot – and in my opinion will never be able to – reliably predict who will decide to put thought into action, acts will occur.  And we, as citizenry, will just have to accept that.  CSIS, the RCMP and others do an amazing job but these agencies will never bat 1.000.

Monday morning quarterbacking is not helpful.  Accusations of an inability to “connect the dots” even less so.  The vast majority of attacks will be stopped, but a few will succeed.  Accept it.

As the IRA famously said in the wake of an attack in Brighton that failed to kill then UK PM Margaret Thatcher: “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”

I have news for the IRA: it’s not luck.  It is dogged investigation and analysis that stops terrorism.  But the sentiment still rings true: attacks will take place in spite of herculean efforts to thwart them.

Let’s give our agencies the credit due to them.  But let’s not demand the impossible.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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