Defining Terrorism

It seems odd that in 2017 we still need to be clear about what constitutes an act of terrorism.  For context, last night, the horrible shooting in Las Vegas occurred.  At the time of writing this, it’s already been the most fatal shooting in US history.  This is a horrible incident that, as usual, I’m not going to Monday morning quarter-back, as so much is still developing in the aftermath.

What I will comment on are statements by media outlets and ‘experts’, many of which proclaimed once it was released that the perpetrator of this crime was an older white guy local to the Las Vegas area, that this was not an act of terrorism.  So let’s clarify against stupidity, ignorance, and general bullshit.  While there are a variety of definitions of terrorism that can be found, no definition worth its salt includes any pre-determined profile based upon race, age, gender, religion, sexuality, nationality, or skin color.  Those factors alone have nothing to do with determining if an act was or was not terrorism.

The most common definition referenced in the US is what is known as the ‘FBI definition’.  This definition actually comes from a section of the US Code of Federal Regulations (28 CFR 0.85) which outlines the general functions of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  In the Code, terrorism is defined as ‘the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in the furtherance of political or social objectives’.

It seems easy in these times to decry any act of violence as terrorism or, similarly, to dismiss certain acts because they are perpetrated by some old white guy with no known agenda.  Both of these actions would be wrong without further evidence.  The FBI definition focuses on motive and intent.  While the results of the incident may certainly be intimidating or coercive, the motivation may not have been to accomplish that – it may have been, not to understate any act of violence, simply to kill people.  It may not have necessarily been motivated by any specific social, political, or religious extremism.  At this moment, there has been no publicly-released information indicating that this person acted to ‘intimidate or coerce a government, civilian population, or segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.’  But that could change at any moment.

In the hours and days ahead, more details will be uncovered on the perpetrator of this crime and their possible motives.  Some people simply want to call it terrorism so they have a label for it or because they think that the crime is somehow elevated by calling it terrorism.  Over 50 were killed and over 500 were injured.  Whatever label you apply doesn’t make the crime any better or worse.  It’s still horribly tragic.  Some people, particularly those with pre-conceived notions of what is or is not terrorism, will hold that this couldn’t possibly be terrorism because it was committed by an older, local, white guy; and not a radicalized individual from the middle east.  Assumptions either way are dangerous.

Regardless of how the investigation shakes out and what labels may be applied to this act, the loss of life and impact to families and loved ones is horrific.  Let us all take some time to consider that and what must be done to prepare for and prevent further mass shootings such as this.

No matter what the disaster is, be informed!

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

Book Review – Failures of Imagination by Michael McCaul

Failures of Imagination: The Deadliest Threats to our Homeland – and how to Thwart Them by Michael McCaul.  A few months ago I put up a short post when I heard about this book coming out.  I speculated a bit on what I anticipated and fortunately those were good assumptions.

Michael McCaul is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.  Congressman McCaul (R-TX) has served with the US Department of Justice and was chief of Counterterrorism and National Security for the US Attorney’s Office in Texas.  Along with chairing the House Homeland Security Committee, he is also a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.  The background all contributes to some interesting insights and perspectives on the threats our nation faces.  Several of those threats have been presented to us in this book. FoI

Failures of Imagination presents several scenarios including an attack on our seat of government, a radiological dispersion device (RDD), foreign influence on an election, a mass shooting in a public space, a cyberattack on finance and infrastructure, a bioterrorism attack, an airplane bombing, and an invasion by foreign powers.  Each scenario is introduced with what I will term a short story, followed by a fictionalized executive situation report, and concluded with a factual review of how the scenario is plausible.

The short stories that introduce each scenario are fairly compelling.  They read like any popular thriller novel, establishing two or three converging story lines with a brief bit of character development which quickly establish motive, plot, and execution.  The timelines are set anywhere from two to 10+ years from now.

With the those scenarios set further in the future, I feel the author has taken some liberties assuming that little has changed in comparison to the current global politics and state of affairs, but that doesn’t bother me too much.  I expect that some readers might feel these fictionalized stories sensationalize the scenarios a bit.  While on the surface that is understandable, consider that the plots as they unfold in these stories may not be far from reality, and that the Congressman has discovered that a mix of fiction and non-fiction can help enhance the readers’ experience and sell more books.  Also consider that we often do the same thing when doing scenario-based planning, training, and exercises.

As a follow-on to each scenario’s short story, a mock executive-level situation report is provided which gives an overview of the impacts of each scenario as presented in the short story.   The basis of this is something we also do in many of our preparedness efforts as we try to gauge a realistic scope of impact.  The Congressman outlines in many of these not only the casualties, but broader impacts such as those to the economy, and takes some realistic stabs at longer term recovery matters.  These situation reports give a good perspective to the reader about the potential impacts of each scenario beyond the more narrow scope of the short story.

Lastly, McCaul provides some narrative on how each scenario presented is rooted in reality.  These summaries provide information on the current situation as it relates to each scenario, typically regarding the modus operandi of certain terrorist groups or state sponsors of terrorism, relationships these groups may have with each other across the globe, and weaknesses in our own security construct which may permit these groups to gain access to the US and do us harm.  While much of the information and recommendations provided by Mc Caul in these sections are factual, practical, and eye-opening, I have to admit that I was significantly turned off by several instances of what I can only call antagonistic political finger pointing.  While I don’t disagree with what the Congressman was saying about certain policies and actions of other elected officials which have influenced our ability to prevent, protect, and prepare for these types of attacks, the messages often came across as snarky and partisan – something I have little patience for, especially in this election cycle.

Failures of Imagination certainly delivered.  While the focus of this book is on threats to the US, I would suggest that the foundational issues identified can apply to most nations and are a good read for anyone in emergency management and homeland security.  The short stories included in each scenario feed our desire to be entertained and contribute to the book being a quick read.  While the scenarios overall don’t serve as much of a resource for emergency management planning, as many of these types of scenarios are already in use in our efforts, the book does provide some context for each scenario which could be referenced, especially in regard to impacts.  Of most importance are the recommendations which Congressman McCaul provides for each scenario.  Many of the recommendations indicate higher-level actions we as a government need to take to prevent, protect, and prepare for attacks of these types.  Increased awareness of these actions will hopefully lead to development, funding, and implementation.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker

EMS Under Fire?

First off, I’d like to give a greeting to all of you.  I’ve been absent from blogging for quite a few months now.  I spent much of last year working in New Jersey as part of a team managing waterway debris removal as the result of Hurricane Sandy.  It was a great experience and often challenging – but I had an opportunity to work with some outstanding people and do some good for the people of New Jersey.  I’m sure in future posts I’ll reflect on some lessons learned from that assignment. 

Since my return I’ve been spending time with family and getting my own business back up and running.  I’ve also re-started the pursuit of my graduate degree.  With all the writing I’ve been doing, I’ve found it challenging to get back into blogging, but have thought about it often.

Earlier this evening I had some inspiration in reading the most recent (January/February 2014) edition of Emergency Management Magazine, in which Jim McKay’s Point of View article (which I could not locate online) spoke about ‘Medics entering the warm zone’ during mass shootings.  This is a topic I’ve had some mixed feelings over for the last couple of months. 

While I understand the urgency to enter the area and save lives – which is the main goal of public safety – we’ve always been taught to do so SAFELY.  This new concept of EMS personnel entering a non-secure active shooter environment is in serious conflict with what we’ve been taught about responder safety.  Are we being too hasty? 

Most times I’ve seen this new concept referenced, it is noted that the medics are outfitted with ballistic vests and helmets and escorted by law enforcement.  A great idea – but is this equipment being made readily available to EMS?  Not to the folks I’ve been speaking to.  Most law enforcement don’t regularly travel with riot gear, aside from their ballistic vests which they usually wear when on duty.  Additionally, are there law enforcement resources available to escort medics so early on in a mass shooting incident?  Often times not.  It seems this concept is not well thought out. 

What about training?  Tactical medic classes have been available for the last few decades, but most medics are not trained as such.  I’ve heard of no movement in EMS training to include information on how to make entry into an unsecured shooting incident, or in law enforcement training regarding providing escort duty to unarmed EMS personnel.  In fact one of the only ‘doctrinal’ references comes from the US Fire Administration, although it doesn’t provide much information.  This entire concept, to be effective, efficient, and safe needs to be prepared for – planning, training, and exercises. 

I’m not alone among my EMS colleagues having experienced looking down the barrel of a shotgun when responding to a call.  It must be considered that responding to an active shooter is NOT that.  It’s much more serious.  I understand that this idea can save lives – but what happens when the first medic loses their life after making entry?  Let’s start with that thought in crafting this new approach.  A dead responder can’t save any lives.