What do we really know about what happened in Paris?

We live in an age of instant information.  This is largely a good thing.   We can learn about what is happening  around the world almost instantaneously.  What used to take weeks or months to come to our attention now takes minutes.  That is a very good thing when it comes to human tragedy.  Earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters can be reported in real time, thus speeding up our awareness and our response.  Kudos to Morse code, the wireless and the Internet!

What is not so good is the accompanying “instant analysis”.  As soon as something happens, legions of experts swarm news media, providing their views and opinions on what just occurred, what it means and what we should do about it.  Some of these experts are very good; some are abysmal in my eyes.  There certainly does not seem to be any vetting system on what constitutes a “real” expert (for a clever take on “expertology”, see Josh Freed’s The trouble with experts).

I know I shouldn’t complain (and I really need to stop yelling at the TV when a particularly egregious idiocy is pronounced!) and that this trend is not going to go away, but I fear it is doing more harm than good.  We are informed by a variety of sources and we rely on perceived expertise to help us deal with events like the attacks in Paris.

But in our voracious appetite for meaningful insight, we do not allow ourselves the time to wait for more relevant info to come in, leading to considered thought and informed response.  This is again true with the attacks in the City of Light.

The bodies were still warm and we were already hearing the following:

  • it was definitely ISIS.  Really?  Based on?  The fact they claimed responsibility 12 hours later?  Well, claims are cheap: that and a buck fifty gets you a small double double at Timmies (for non-Canadians, this is a coffee)
  • the attackers came through the refugee system.  Are you sure about that?  Three of the attackers appear from Belgium and may have been there for some time.  One may have – that’s “may have”.  Even if true, does that mean all refugees are terrorists?
  • we need to seal the borders to prevent future attacks.  False, at least in Canada.  The vast majority of those radicalised to violence are born in the West
  • this was retaliation for French action in Syria.  Maybe, but irrelevant.  We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
  • This is a game-changer.  Again, no.  Does anyone remember London in 2005, Madrid in 2004, 9/11…..?

I do understand this obsession with meaning.  I guess that’s what makes us human and why so many of us seek solace in faith to fathom the big questions.  But when events of this nature occur and we are contemplating reactions on an enormous scale – reactions that could have ginormous fallout – we need to take the time to think twice.  I know that is anathema in an era of soundbites, but could we please just take a breath before we return to pontification?  The consequences of getting this wrong are dire indeed.

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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