Make no mistake about the events of January 8, 2011, in Tucson, AZ. Citizens of the United States, among them several courageous civil servants, were victims of an act of terror.
In law enforcement parlance, an active shooter scenario unfolded that led to mass casualties. Rather than focus on guessing at the motives of the man or men who perpetrated this violence—thousands of pundits will do that—I want to address the rising concern among law enforcement officers at every level of government who see active shooter scenarios becoming a major concern for police forces everywhere.
I have the opportunity to work with some outstanding law enforcement officers in my capacity as an instructor at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, one of the many schools that comprise the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. One of my graduate students, a police lieutenant from Montclair, NJ, recently wrote her thesis on the topic of building capacity at all levels to deal with the uptick in active shooter incidents in America.
Her work was prompted by the national law enforcement community focusing on the terrorism that occurred in Mumbai, India, in November of 2008. That event left over 150 people dead as terrorists armed with automatic firearms assaulted several locations near simultaneously. The Mumbai police were wholly unprepared for this attack, so the Indian army was called in to suppress the actions of a focused and dedicated group of terrorists.
In America, our active shooter events are becoming more numerous. Modern history of active shooter episodes dates back to 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery shootout and the Columbine school attack in 1999. There have been many more since. One need not go back very far in the headlines to find accounts from Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, the Little Rock recruiting offices and Fort Hood. In most of these episodes, one or two gunmen, using firearms, opened fire on unsuspecting individuals. The attacks resulted in tragic outcomes. The uncomfortable realization for law enforcement is that preventing purposeful assailants from carrying out these deadly assaults is problematic.
Since the events of 9/11, law enforcement agencies across the country have been working toward building a stronger, more responsive intelligence gathering network. As much as this system has matured, no intelligence network is ever going to harvest all threats. Lone wolves or small cells of individuals are likely to go undetected unless someone happens to trip over them and have enough sense to realize that evil is afoot. Because of the celebrity of the latest shooting victims, there will be a strong push on the part of well-intentioned politicians to “do something” about this latest event.
We are very likely to hear the renewed call for gun control of some sort, the need for more invasive intelligence gathering from the internet and any number of other initiatives intending to make all of us safer. Before we ask our elected officials to run around feigning concern for all of us, perhaps we ought to find out the specifics of this case and then let local and federal officials handle the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the attack.
Am I saddened and outraged by the attack? Yes, I am. I am also optimistic that this event will be dealt with professionally and cooler heads will prevail when we begin to apply “lessons learned” to future policy development. I am absolutely sure that law enforcement officials in Tucson and Pima County, AZ will be seeking the counsel of their colleagues around the country so that their capacities for dealing with active shooters will be enhanced.
Like it or not, the events that occurred on Saturday will probably occur again. In a free society, awareness and vigilance become so much more important. All of our public servants, regardless of whether we agree with them or not, deserve as much protection as can reasonably be provided. At the same time, we must not bend to terrorism by allowing brutal acts to inhibit the free and open exercise of our freedoms. As we pray for the victims of this latest incident, let us also pray for the preservation of our great nation and all the freedoms we enjoy.
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