What should we do about good intentions? By this I mean people who mean well but who end up doing things that are, to put it mildly, counterproductive.
A few things have happened over the past week in the world of “terrorism” that put this issue at the forefront. For the sake of this post, I will assume that the individuals who took questionable action were in fact acting in good faith and were not driven by fear, racism or hatred.
We have all heard of the English teacher in Texas who called the police when a 14-year old student brought a model clock to school (an engineering teacher who saw the project earlier had no problem with it). In fairness, she heard a noise coming from a box, saw a bunch of wires and what she thought was a timer, and panicked. She thought it was a bomb.
And now we have a student of terrorism in a COUNTER-TERRORIST PROGRAMME at Staffordshire University in the UK accused of being a terrorist for reading a book on terrorism in a COUNTER-TERRORIST PROGRAMME (sorry for the caps and the overuse of the word “terrorism”). His actions were reported to security officials because they raised too many “red flags” (see Guardian story here).
It would be too easy to snicker and call these people idiots. But I think there is more to these stories than meets the eye.
I have seen far too many cases of violent radicalisation where families and friends express shock and surprise at the departure/death in a terrorist attack/arrest of a loved one and claim that they didn’t see it coming. Once all the facts are in, however, the path to violent extremism was crystal clear, if you know what to look for.
You see, that is the key: knowing what to look for. There are signs of violent radicalisation and I discuss them at length in my forthcoming book The Threat From Within (available October 16 and ready for pre-order on the Chapters and Amazon Web sites). But the signs are not fool proof. There is no such thing as a terrorism-prediction machine. There is too much variation and far too many cases of individuals who ramp up to a violent ideology but never put that ideology into action (for fear, laziness, lack of resources, lack of opportunity, lack of networks, etc.). This does not mean that the signs should be ignored or dismissed as a “phase”. On the contrary. Questions should be asked and action taken if there are reasonable grounds to suspect that something is amiss.
As in most things in life, context is everything. Had the teacher in Texas asked the 14-year old student what he had in the box, she would have learned that he had made a clock because he has a mechanical bent and that another teacher had seen his project and had no issues with it. Had the security team at Staffordshire put the reading material into context (the student was in a COUNTER-TERRORIST PROGRAMME – sorry again for all the caps), it would likely have concluded that the interest was academic and legitimate in nature.
Terrorism is real and it is a threat within Western countries. Our security and intelligence agencies cannot be in all places at all times and need the public’s help. But the public can help only if it is informed and looks at situations critically. We do not need a “zero tolerance” programme where every ill-founded suspicion puts as at red on the threat level chart.
So by all means educate yourself on what is problematic behaviour and ideology, but exercise your judgment wisely. After all, we know which road good intentions follow.