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The task, preventing violent extremism, reminds one of “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” While Lamont Cranston might have known, for the rest of us the task remains foreboding.
Any of us should be grateful when simple, understandable and credible hope is put forth. Schanzer et al. have done us that favor. Still, the limits — mostly as laid out by the authors — should be understood.
These are “promising.” We’ve seen promises evaporate in other contexts. These are not easy to pull off. And the barriers to success are non-trivial.
Michela Del Vicario and colleagues wrote an interesting research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/01/02/1517441113.full.pdf). They studied how scientific information and “unsubstantiated rumors and conspiracy theories” are spread via Facebook.
It turns out that both types of information tend to spread via homogeneous “echo chambers.” Scientific information tends to get out faster. The rumors and conspiracy theories have a much longer distribution cycle. And neither group of people talks much to the other.
Most likely, this will surprise few of us. These sorts of processes have been going on since there has been something recognizable as science. The challenge for policing remains how to cope with the spread of rumors and conspiracy theories as their consumers tend to be isolated from sources of scientific evidence.
The challenge goes even beyond that. Police, too, are people, subject to many of the same social processes that affect private citizens. Police, too, may be isolated from scientific evidence. That makes police leadership somewhat of a challenge.
So, as chiefs and sheriffs lead their organizations toward various futures, how can they best enhance the distribution of objective evidence, cope with rumors and conspiracy theories, and encourage the sharing of information across narratives? Surely, transparency can help — rumors and conspiracy theories emerge more often when the supply of objective information is limited. But what else can or should be done?
When U.S. President Reagan was shot, the U.S. went through some soul-searching — and some sense of vengeance — regarding responsibility of those who were mentally ill and also committed a criminal act. States took two diverse approaches, approximately:
- Guilty but mentally ill: The person would be imprisoned but some treatment might be made available in prison versus
- Not guilty by reason of insanity: The person would not be held responsible criminally but could be committed to a mental facility.
There is still disagreement about which approach is preferable and how well each of them works. But we’ve also got a second and even more complicated problem. Where is the boundary between religious zealotry and mental illness — and terrorism. An instructive case is that of the Philadelphia police officer who was attacked Thursday night (http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/08/us/philadelphia-police-officer-shot/) by someone with a history of mental illness and who claimed to be acting on behalf of Islam and in the name of ISIS.
In the Philadelphia case, how does one separate out the terrorism dimension from the mental illness and from religious zealotry? What rules should police and prosecutors follow? Also keep in mind that the first two clauses of the first amendment to the U.S. constitution guarantee religious freedom.
Labels are convenient and attractive because they are simple. Because they are simple, they can be used to achieve political ends and to unite mobs (virtual or physical). But real cases rarely are so simple.
Police are faced daily with real people who are multidimensional. As transparency burgeons, information on these individuals and their interactions with police will be even more rapidly and widely shared. The potential for firing up mobs and intemperate individuals is significant.
The choices that police have are limited somewhat by law and by service availability. To give a concrete example of the latter, my department wants to be able to refer first-time drug offenders to treatment instead of arresting them. Unfortunately, treatment resources are very limited, so they become enmeshed in the criminal justice system — which rarely makes things better and always is expensive to all parties.
Both strategically and tactically, what should police do while enmeshed in such mine fields? Whatever your answer, now play out the processes and the political winds/whimsy to test the viability of the answer.
Privacy is a rapidly changing concept. In many respects, it has faded markedly over recent decades. Transparency seems an almost overwhelming zeitgeist. Secrets have become very hard to keep, despite vigorous attempts. See, e.g., http://www.homelandsecuritynewswire.com/dr20151208-untraceable-communication-guaranteed . This new work, in itself, is not a paradigm shift as much as it is a modernizing of a model long in use — e.g., two users sharing a username and password who leave messages in “draft” form on an email server which, itself, was a technologized update of the “dead drop” methodology spies have used as long as there have been spies.
Hope springs eternal, e.g., https://gcn.com/articles/2015/12/08/private-data-as-a-service.aspx . However, for the nonce, privacy and transparency remain locked in a continuing battle, much like bazookas (and their successors) versus armor. When the power of attackers increases the defenders develop stronger protections. Thus it has been, both in physical and digital worlds, for a long time.
What changes that dynamic usually is a paradigm shift, often from outside the attacker/defender box. The paradigm shift may reflect changes in technology and/or changes in mindset but, either way, the old attacker/defender paradigm becomes either less useful or irrelevant.
What possible paradigm shifts do we see? For example,
1. could the general public become more comfortable with increasing transparency, including to police and other intelligence agencies?
2. could invasive technologies stably overcome any probable defenses?
3. could an electromagnetic pulse (or a conceptual equivalent) stably make this game irrelevant?
Most people seem to agree that the primary purpose of terrorism is to create terror. At least we agree in theory. When it gets down to brass tacks, agreement is a little harder to come by.
We label events as “terrorism” (or not) depending in part on:
a. association with others we label terrorists
b. damage done, injuries and deaths caused, especially if at a socially valued target (gang fights in the slums rarely are labeled terrorism).
c. whether we are surprised at the event, e.g., we don’t label as terrorism the “usual” friday night bar fight, anything that’s “normal” for the neighborhood (even if people are made afraid).
d. political proclivities and the sociological other
What seems odd is that, other than the folks who are “hysterical for a living,” few seem interested in measuring fearfulness. Media denizens don’t generally use objective measures, so they’re not helpful for our purpose.
We’re left with a definition way out of sync with how we actually apply the label. So, where are we likely to be going, e.g.,
a. abandon the concept of terrorism, merging it instead with “violent crime” or something similar? This would implicitly recognize that victims of violent — and even nonviolent — crimes often become fearful.
b. consistently restrict it to events where the avowed purpose was to create fear. If this choice is adopted, the label would have to be an outcome of subsequent investigation. That delay probably would not sit well with the political classes.
c. abandon the term as rife with surplus meaning, misleading, and, errrr, fear-mongering.
What is your conceptualization of terrorism? is it
b. the destruction of the world trade centers in New York?
c. Coordinated team-based attacks such as at Mumbai or, more recently, Paris?
d. Lone wolves (e.g., http://www.lonewolfthreat.com) such as Timothy McVey?
e. the various Al Qaeda affiliates and copycats?
f. ad hoc street gangs?
g. organized (or disorganized) crime by another name?
Have we created too broad a rubric for it to be useful? To what extent should police and/or military be engaged in conflict with these folks, and how? How can terrorism best be impeded or prevented?
What does our future look like in a world where terrorism seems to make frequent headlines?