Violence can come from anywhere without warning

When an act of terrorism or a serious act of violence takes place, many try to unpack or deconstruct the life, mentality and events surrounding the perpetrator. If we could only achieve a better understanding of why individuals commit violence, the thinking goes, perhaps we could create strategies to identify those at risk and act before deaths occur.  In truth, this would be a stupendous advance in society and could prevent serious harm and sadness from taking place.

But what if we can’t come up with models that explain all this?  What if there is no finite set of factors, drivers and indicators that work often enough – there will always be false positives and false negatives after all – to make a difference?  What if all the work carried out with the best of intentions by psychologists, sociologists, criminologists and others does not get us THE answer, either through individual or collective research?  What if prediction is little better than random selection?

The difficulty in pinpointing the roots of violence came to my attention again today when I read of a new book by the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine killers.  To refresh your memories, he and his friend Eric Harris went into their highschool in Colorado in 1999 and went on a shooting spree, killing 12, wounding 21 and finally turning their guns on themselves.  Klebold’s mother has written a powerful account, at least based on the excerpts I have seen, of her journey from self-imposed isolation to an attempt to understand why her son became, according to some, a “monster”.  She wrote that she was largely unaware of Dylan’s descent to darkness and has had to come to terms with how, as a mother, she missed the signs.

Is she to blame?  What if there were no signs? Rather, what if what was happening in this young man’s life was not significantly different than what happens in the lives of thousands, millions of teens in North America, the vast majority of whom do not become mass killers?  Perhaps it is simply not possible in every case to confidently conclude that a particular individual is in serious trouble and needs immediate attention before they hurt themselves or others.

Here’s a quote from a Globe and Mail article on the book (you can read the entire article here):

  • The ultimate message of the book is actually quite terrifying. As psychologist Andrew Solomon writes in his introduction: “you may not know your own children, and, worst yet, your children may be unknowable to you.”

Unknowable.  Hearkening back to former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns” quote.  In a world that seeks certainty and to have all questions answered, this sticks out and bothers us.  We have convinced ourselves that if we collect enough information and perform enough analysis eventually we will solve all the mysteries out there.  Even the mysteries of the human mind.  But what if we are wrong?  Can we live with knowing that there are some things we will never know?

Some of you may recall that I have written on many occasions, with respect to radicalisation to violence along the lines of the Al Qaeda/Islamic State narrative, that there are always signs.  Hence you may accuse me of sending out a contradictory message.  Not at all.  I do believe that there are signs of violent radicalisation and that these signs are often missed due to a combination of denial, fear and lack of knowledge.  And yet, as I have noted, many who exhibit signs of violent radicalisation never act on the ideology coursing through them.  It is in the transition from thought to action where the impossibility (or near impossibility) of prediction lies.  In other words, even when the indicators are overt and observable there is still a great deal that is unknowable.

We need to accept that some things cannot be solved and as a result must be merely managed.  Let us park the hubris over our omniscient omnipotence and work to deal with things beyond our control as best as we can.

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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