Death in school in the post 9/11 America

The Newtown school shooting has re-awakened debates not only on gun control and mental illness, but also on the role of law enforcement in detecting and eliminating emerging threats. Quietly emerging is a solution that means not more guns, but more militarization.

Jeremy Pennington
27 December 2012

On December 14, 2012 America faced yet another traumatic loss of life. The mass shooting in a Connecticut elementary school left twenty-seven people dead: seven adults and twenty children. The tragedy has already spurred the age-old debate of gun control in America and care of the mentally ill. No doubt, the ensuing policy debate will produce a frantic search to find ways to prevent yet another tragedy.

The reaction by government officials will come in two forms. One, the attempt to limit access to firearms through Congressional legislation, renewing a debate heavily opposed to by special interest groups. Secondly, the increased placement of armed law enforcement officers in an attempt to deter any would-be gunman, though no research supports this long held conventional strategy. Most likely, elementary schools will become more akin to prisons than institutions of learning. 

One pressing question the American public has failed to ask is one that government officials will refuse to entertain. If the American government can assess threats worldwide, and skillfully counter these threats, then why cannot the American Government accomplish the same in the homeland? Fusion centers, operated by the government, exist to process mass amounts of information specifically connected to terrorism. 

Is the mass killing of twenty-seven people not an act of terror? If the shooter had been from radical Islam, would the tragedy have been called terrorism? For the teachers and children exposed to this tragedy, the incident was an act of terrorism. However, defining this incident as an act of terrorism would come with an unwanted finger pointing at the US government and questioning its inherent inability to predict and assess homeland security risks. 

The U.S. Government and the American people need to realize two critical facts. First, terrorism is not limited to foreign threats, but is both home grown and nurtured abroad. Terrorism is the senseless provoking of fear and in many cases, the killing of innocent people. The mass killing of innocent school children and their teachers, is an act of terrorism. Secondly, the idea and conventional thought that more law enforcement with weapons keeps America safe is simply not true. America was built upon the pursuit of individual freedoms. More authority figures with weapons only inhibit this pursuit.

What is the fix? The true and only way of protecting the American public is through threat analysis. The strategy of assessing threats is not new and is actively practiced. The American president, federal judges, and state governors are all protected by skilled practitioners of threat analysis. Threat analysis methods vary, but one strategy is the identification of emerging threats and the elimination of those threats through monitoring, commitment, or arrest of the individual.

The facts and rationale of the Connecticut elementary school tragedy are still unclear. However, similar attacks in the United States present a repeating theme. The lone gunman has a history of prior contact with law enforcement. Typically, this form of contact with law enforcement is a result of the individual’s unusual and often criminal behavior. In the aftermath of a lone gunman’s act of terrorism, the individual’s previous patterns of behavior are typically described as exhibiting symptoms of a mental illness.

If law enforcement is coming into contact with these soon to be lone gunman than why are these tragedies occurring? Essentially, once the contact with the individual is terminated, no follow-up contact is instigated unless law enforcement receives a complaint. No assessment is completed to determine the probable threat the individual poses to society. No ongoing monitoring is initiated to determine if this threat is escalating. 

Critics will cite civil liberties to counter the prospect of using active threat analysis methods. The idea of actively monitoring an American citizen does bring civil liberty concerns to mind. However, if properly implemented, no civil liberty infringement would occur. The simple task of tracking complaints and law enforcement contacts on specific individuals and establishing a dialogue with these individuals would not compromise civil liberties. If law enforcement uncovers information that an individual poses a threat to society, then an arrest or commitment is fully within the power of law enforcement. 

The American public and the US government must overcome the misperception that terrorism is only a threat outside its borders. The simple reality is that there are many threats that are in current development by lone gunmen and these future acts of terror may be more deadly than the previous one. The reason for action may not be understood or the perpetrators may simply be mentally ill. However, the central fact is that a lone gunman will demonstrate signs of discourse that will lead to law enforcement involvement. The next step is for law enforcement to utilize a threat analysis process. This analysis will provide a framework from which law enforcement can act more rapidly and effectively while preventing civil liberties infringement. Therefore, an active analysis process is the only way to uncover a lone gunmen’s plan of attack on innocent lives. 

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