Wisdom from the most unexpected place

The other night my wife and I went to see a play written by legendary British crime writer Agatha Christie called The Unexpected Guest at the Ottawa Little Theatre.  This particular performance was quite good and the ending, much in keeping with the title, was unexpected (at least to us it was: perhaps “whodunit” was obvious to everyone else in the audience).

Finding answers in places you don’t normally look is both exhilarating and frustrating: exhilarating because it reminds you that you should keep all options open when trying to find a solution to a problem and frustrating as it bugs you that you didn’t think to look there earlier.

Wisdom in an unexpected place was exactly my reaction to an opinion piece in today’s Globe and Mail with the headline “An end to gun violence requires our outrage“.  Written by two recent high school graduates (and a lawyer) it talks of the frustration many feel surrounding the ‘summer of the gun’ besetting Toronto this year and the patent lack of way out of the violence.   There is much to the piece worth reading – and I do recommend you have a peek at it – but one part stood out for me, and it was this thought that led me to this blog.

The authors wrote: “More than anyone, residents of neighbourhoods where violence claims many young lives wish for easy answers to this problem, but, as you see more gun violence in your community, you also see an overwhelming number of factors that contribute to crime. When you understand youth-involved killings to be the complex human tragedies that they are, you think twice before claiming to know definitively what will make our streets any safer.”  They go on to issue a ‘call for humility’ for those who are sure they can resolve the gun-violence ill.

Amen to that!  I for one am tired of the constant oneupmanship in the more enforcement vs. better social conditions debate as if doing one thing in the complete absence of the other will work.  It is seldom true that complex issues of any ilk have simple answers and gun violence is surely no different.

The same goes for radicalisation and extremist violence.  We see an analogous jousting here between ‘it’s all the individual’s fault’ and ‘it’s all society’s fault’ with solutions proffered by champions of each position and dismissal of anything the opposition says.  As I have written on far too many occasions, figuring out what to do about terrorism and what leads to it will never be as easy as some say it will be.

I suppose what struck me about the article in the G&M was the fact that those who claim to have been witness on far too many occasions to the carnage and destruction of guns in Toronto  – “(we) have seen violence…up close while living, studying and working in Toronto’s Jane and Finch community” (NB Jane and Finch is a neighbourhood in Toronto that is disproportionately associated with gun and gang issues) – are those that seem to have grasped the nucleus of the problem.  Not some academic who studies violence in an academic ivory tower. Not a police officer on the beat.  No, just two recent high school graduates who have seen the problem close up (and who most probably know both perpetrators and victims).  Who would have guessed?  This shows that sometimes the best analysis is to be found in the very population that is subject to scrutiny.

What this teaches us – again – is the importance of primary data.  To have any hope of understanding a problem we have to gather information at the source, and not pontificate upon it from afar.  Kudos to these two young people and their perspicacity.  Let’s hope we get more of it.

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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