It takes a village to stop a terrorist attack

If there is one thing that people consistently get wrong it is the certain belief that violent crime is on the increase.  We are convinced that the situation is getting worse, not better, and the depth of this certainty is probably due, in no small part, to the constant media feed over acts of violence.  Turn on CNN, or Fox News, or read your Twitter or FaceBook feeds and you will draw no other conclusion that we are all racing towards hell in a handbasket.

Except that you would be in error.

As the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders wrote last week “never in history has there been less violent crime in our big cities”.  He cites US-based sociologist Patrick Sharkey who has just published Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence which looks at theories as to why violent crime has decreased so much.  I’d also like to point readers to an earlier book by Canadian US-based cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why violence has declined which gives more or less the same message.  These two very bright people have provided us with irrefutable evidence that we are safer, despite what we think when we consume mass media.

An extended quote from Mr. Sharkey’s book will help set the stage for what I want to talk about here: “It was the hard work of community groups, combined with the enhanced presence of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and private security forces that helped bring about the drop in violence across urban America.”  In other words, ensuring that there are enough people keeping an eye out for suspicious behaviour helps prevent that behaviour from taking place.  To paraphrase former US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, among others, it takes a village to prevent a crime.

This being a blog on national security and terrorism I’d like to extend the analogy one step further: it takes a village to stop a terrorist (or a terrorist act).  What do I mean by that?  At one level, the prevention of terrorism is the responsibility of the State’s organs: law enforcement and national security agencies.  They are the ones with the mandate and resources to investigate threats and act to prevent plots from coming to fruition.

But at another level, these organisations cannot prevent all terrorist acts from taking place without the help of communities and average citizens.  Citizens, after all, have to agree to help spies and cops find malicious actors by providing information (intelligence or evidence) and help the spies/cops in their investigations (either as sources or agents).  This can only happen when society trusts these organisations and wants to lend assistance.

In a much more fundamental way, however, it is only society writ large that can identify those in the early stages of radicalisation to violence and thus ensure that these individuals can be re-redirected or receive counselling so that they do not eventually or inevitably go on to plan acts of terrorism.  This is not, or perhaps better stated, should not be, the remit of CSIS or the RCMP.  These agencies are busy enough already identifying and neutralising real threats to national security and public safety to spend time mentoring those heading down the pathway of radicalisation to violence.

That job belongs to us – all of us.  Teachers, religious leaders, families, peers, classmates, friends – the list goes on and on.  Why?  Two reasons.  The parties just listed are in all likelihood the first ones to notice something is amiss: a change in behaviour, a change in social group, etc., since these people are the ones that interact regularly with the individuals of concern.  By the time CSIS or the RCMP gets a whiff of what is going on it is much more challenging to do anything about it other than investigate and, in the worst case scenario, lay charges.  Secondly, those in these kinds of relationships are more likely to engage with one another in a trusting way: the same cannot always be said about security intelligence and law enforcement officers.

What we really need to do is convince everyone that the responsibility to perform this service does indeed lie with them.  Far too often people won’t say anything out of fear, uncertainty, NIMBYism….  We have to realise the consequences of not doing anything.  So yes, it does take a village to stop terrorism, or at least a fair-sized subdivision or a social network.


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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