Why can’t we identify terrorists before it is too late?

Woodstock, Ontario, a small city just up the road from where I grew up, is having a tough time of it.  A nurse has just been accused of killing at least eight elderly patients over a seven-year span by giving them lethal drugs.  She is already being called one of Canada’s worst serial killers even though nothing has been proven in court.

If this turns out to be true this is indeed a tragic set of events, although it is unfortunately not a unique occurrence. Apparently those who kill patients see themselves as God-like figures who are putting those suffering out of their misery and giving them peace.   Nevertheless, what fascinates me is the reaction of neighbours and friends.  The alleged murderess was apparently a church-going woman who hosted a Bible study and who was caring, outgoing, happy-go-lucky and “loved her job”.  Everyone is struggling to reconcile what they thought they knew about her with what she has been accused of doing.

There is of course an uncanny parallel to terrorism (otherwise I would not take up this item in a terrorism blog).  Time and time again, those who have committed heinous acts of violence in the name of ideology are seen by those closest to them as (pick one or several): sweet, honest, easygoing, happy, involved, pacifist, caring….  No one seems to say “Gee, I always knew that so-and-so would turn out to be a bloodthirsty terrorist”.

So the question stares us in the face: why can we not identify those who wantonly take lives before they commit their acts of murder?  I am not a serial killer expert but it seems to me that, just as with terrorists, there are signs that are missed.  In actual fact, the accused in Woodstock wrote bizarre poems about serial killing.

As an aside, I suppose that it is hard to make the determination that there  is something suspicious about the deaths of the very elderly.  All the deaths  which the nurse has been accused of causing were labelled “natural”.  And yet, is there no protocol  in place to make sure of that?

Yes, hindsight is 20-20 as they say but there are always indicators that get missed.  The reasons for not picking up on these signs are varied.  Mostly, I assume, it is out of ignorance (you won’t report what you don’t think is worth reporting).  Others may be reluctant to “get involved”.  In some cases there are fears that saying something will be construed as racism or prejudice or bigotry.  There are probably those, both serial killers and terrorists, who are really good at hiding their intentions and actions.  In my experience with terrorism in Canada, on the other hand, most violent extremists openly share their hateful views and, on some occasions, their desire to do something violent.  It is actually not that difficult to detect these signs and we must educate everyone on what they are.

Every time there is a massive loss of life  – or in the case of terrorism even the loss of one life – we wring our hands and wonder why such acts occur and what we didn’t do to stop them.  The answers we so desperately seek are right in front of us and easy to grasp, although we do need to work on the mechanisms to report our concerns.

Before more events of this nature happen let’s commit to saying something or doing something to prevent it.  Before  it is too late.

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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