The post tragedy blame game

Humans like to have neat, obvious lines drawn around everything.  We do not do well with uncertainty or fuzziness.  Something is either black or it’s white.  We don’t like grey.  Once we have made a decision based on this dichotomy we stick to it and it takes a lot to change our minds.

We also like to find a scapegoat when something goes wrong.  Whatever that something is – a murder, a flood, a terrorist attack – someone is at fault and that someone must pay for his or her error. Heads have to roll so we can all express relief that ‘justice’, whatever that is supposed to mean, can be seen to have been done.

The latest school shooting in Florida – isn’t it telling that this the ‘latest’ and not just the ‘recent’ or the ‘tragic’ as if these events are rare as four leaf clovers? – has given rise to yet another round of finger pointing and calls for blood (as if the deaths of 17 people were not enough carnage).  In the wake of news that the FBI had been warned about the gunman the governor of Florida has called for the Bureau’s director to resignPresident Trump and  others have claimed that the FBI missed signs that an attack was inevitable because they were too busy investigating allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.  Predictably, the debate is forming along partisan lines with the Republicans scrounging for any opportunity to slam the FBI.

Yet again, the shrill litany of allegations of FBI  incompetence belies a woeful ignorance of how law enforcement and intelligence work.  At the risk of repeating myself – again – here is how it really works.

Any agency that works in public safety or national security – the FBI, CIA, CSIS or the RCMP – is really just an information clearing house.  Data comes in all forms, in all shapes and in from all directions: HUMINT, SIGINT, semi-assessed, raw, reliable, unknown, from self-initiated  investigations and outside leads, etc.  It is the job of those who work in these agencies to determine what is good and what isn’t , what is important and what isn’t, what can wait and what can’t.  This all happens in real time and is complicated even further by the huge size of the data flow – what we call ‘drinking from a firehose’.  There is an analogy I love, given that I pretend to be a hockey goalie: stopping bad things from happening is like facing a barrage of pucks – even if you are Carey Price some get by.

If that were not complicated enough there is the need to obey the law, follow strict policies and procedures, limit collection to the absolute minimum in order not to violate Charter/Constitutional protections, and do all this with finite resources and in the face of multiple threat streams.  To top it off, those on the inside know that there are far more ‘talkers’ than ‘walkers’, i.e. most people who boast of planning something violent never carry through on their plans.  The ability to tell wannabes from real threats is an inexact science at best.  And yes, at times mistakes are made and hindsight is a cruel reminder of that.

In the case of the Florida massacre what the FBI did or did not do is really immaterial.  What is more troubling is the growing chasm between the two  main political parties, the death of bipartisanship and the increasingly strident and puerile statements coming from the White House (I cannot imagine how the FBI rank and file feel when they hear or read the latest screed from their Commander-in-Chief).  Oh, and the fact that there are too many guns, too much firepower easily accessible and no will to put in place what anyone with two neurons to rub together would clearly see as reasonable restrictions on gun access.

The unfortunate truth is that all the outrage, all the calls for ‘thoughts and prayers’, all the promises that ‘Florida is different’ (hell, if the deaths of kindergarteners at Sandy Hook didn’t change minds nothing will), and all the initial optimism that perhaps something good will come of this tragedy will most likely amount to nil.  To quote a US president, on this day of all days (President’s Day): sad.

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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