Two Ways To Lower The Odds of Terror

Logical and actionable things from two Harvard experts

by Josh Wolfe

Lux partner Bilal Zuberi and I were discussing Orlando with a former top official at US Department of Homeland Security and now Harvard lecturer (and “security Mom”) Juliette Kayyem.

I shared with her my view: it is both horrible and horrifying. We remember the salient shock of the Virginia campus, the Connecticut elementary school, the Paris rock club, the Orlando nightclub.

Out of empathy for others and our own self-preservation and survival instincts we want to understand it, to find patterns, to know it could never happen to us, could never happen to someone we know or love, could be prevented.

We fear it equally in its randomness or in its intentional plot, too hidden to be detected until too late to be deterred.

Each incident at each locale to each affinity group shocks us, rallies us, numbs us. And the more supreme is the innocence of the victims, the more paralyzing is the terror.

The attacker’s breach is always physically of some premises trespassed, but psychologically trespassing the premise that safety is not just an illusion and that evil exists.

Pledges of ‘never again’ are rendered impotent. Whoever the offender, the attacker be they depressed, dejected, deranged, disgruntled, hateful, righteous, religious — it’s always scarier than any damn horror movie because the monsters are both human and real.

Back to Juliette. She just wrote something very realist, very logical noting a very important distinction between “safer” and “safe”:

A nation cannot design a policy around what it thinks it knows about one incident. In fact, the search for facts diverts us from what we should be concentrating on. By focusing on “motivation,” we perpetuate the notion by defenders of current gun laws that we could be “safe” if only we knew more about the individuals who threaten us. Instead, as we work to build good policy, we should focus on the “means” — yes, the guns — because there is a difference between safer and safe. The former is an achievable policy and points to concrete steps we can take. The other is a futile, childish hope.

And in the same piece her Harvard colleague Steven Pinker wrote something statistically stoic and imminently actionable:

The honest answer is that we can’t stop them. Despite the round-the-clock media coverage, mass shootings are in fact rare compared to the more than 35 homicides that show up on police blotters every day. And rare events are inherently difficult to predict and control. In a country of 315 million people and almost as many weapons (which won’t evaporate any time soon), nothing can prevent .0001 percent of those people from wreaking revenge or gaining notoriety by the only guaranteed recipe for becoming famous: killing a lot of innocent people.
The best we can do is try to lower the odds. Two measures are common sense: outlawing or restricting bloodbath weapons, and increasing the reach of mental health services. (Most mass shooters have a history of disturbance.) Another is trickier: keeping media coverage and officials’ responses in perspective — currently they are massively out of line with the actual level of harm — so as not to provide a perverse incentive for angry losers to “make a difference” in the only way available, even if they only get to enjoy their fame in the anticipation of it.
The same is true for terrorism, which almost by definition is a tactic to exploit the media. And for terrorist attacks, anything that can hasten the waning of the prestige of the cause would help. We don’t see anarchists or Marxists bombing cafes anymore because they no longer feel they are part of a glorious historical movement.