In the wake of recent spectacular murders in Texas— one at the hands of an Army doctor shooting innocents at Fort Hood and another at the hands of a failed entrepreneur auguring his small fixed wing aircraft into an Austin federal building— homeland security practitioners have risen to the attackers’ bait by rushing to call both terrorists. Both attackers sought to make more of their attacks than grudge-bearing strikes of unrespected failures against a target that barely acknowledged their existence. One slid into the ravings of jihad long after his unspectacular prospects became evident. Major Hasan, M.D., saw that his military career was going nowhere, his competence was insufficient to open the door to private sector opportunities, and the likely trajectory of his employment would be into harm’s way no matter what he could concoct in the way of excuses, tropes, and gambits. The other, Joe Stack, a self-styled high tech consultant with a history of failed attempts to cash in on the blandishments of sole proprietorship and Silicon Valley entrepreneurial opportunities, lost two families and multiple jobs. Yet he found a history of dodging taxes was catching up with him while the marketability of his skills was not matching his self-definition of captain of industry. Consequently, in addition to blaming all around him for his serial failures, and despite knowing better after previously running up federal back taxes in excess of $100,000, Stack decided to blame the Internal Revenue Service for his recent failure to file a tax return. He claimed the attending financial distress led him to aim his kamikaze flight into Austin’s IRS building as some sort of freedom fighter’s valiant act of defiance. In reality, he more likely wanted to end a life bereft of accomplishment or prospect.
When do homeland security practitioners become unintentional accessories after the fact? They do so whenever they magnify tragic loss by buying into attacker claims that the blood of innocents was spilled in the service of some higher cause.
“Terrorism!” shout the earnest practitioners. Why, Hasan must clearly be a radicalized Islamist who would otherwise be harmlessly practicing medicine guided by Marcus Welby and ER reruns. Alas, once his mind slid into a jihadi marinade, the physician who struggled to even rank among the mediocre all of a sudden became a mastermind, even if he ended up being the only member of his own terror cell. Similarly, Stack must have become a radicalized tax protestor. Perhaps he idolized Timothy McVeigh or succumbed to anti-government propaganda, ultimately turning from average loser into steely-eyed suicide pilot.
Suppose an alternative analysis, however. What if both these people were simply unhinged incompetents who saw no way out of the holes they dug for themselves? Would they not then do what most of us do best when facing such challenges without a viable support system? Dig themselves in deeper. Then, when in too deep, what is the last act of self-elevation available as they lash out? That’s right: go out claiming a connection with something greater than their wretched selves. Why? Because such a connection makes them something more. Otherwise, they face an end that replicates their beginning and middle: wading through the mainstream of life without even making a ripple. Affix to them the terrorist label, though, and you help transform them. Now instead of being a nothing-but, they become a something-more. Where are their networks, their cells, or even their disciples? We cannot find what does not exist.
Terrorism and terrorist labels can be irresistible for homeland security practitioners to brandish. Label one attacker a radicalized Islamist and you mobilize federal resources and subsidies to take on the problem and diffuse accountability for failing to prevent his carnage. Label the other attacker a domestic terrorist and you again lay claim to federal resources and deflect attention from those elements of our society which no one cares to invest in or mobilize to take a hand in our own defense: average fellow citizens. Instead, the terrorism label confines the problem to the purview of experts and continues to keep the rest of us at arm’s length. To name is to control.
There is a better way: a No Dark Corners approach. No Dark Corners would launch failure analysis in both cases without rushing to affix labels. Establish timelines of individual actions and identify signals of lethality that may have been missed. Probe further to see whether those signals were really missed or actually detected but not acted upon because of institutional or societal self-hobbling that we must face in order to undo.
Unless we start looking at such attacks more analytically through a defender’s prism, we doom ourselves to watch in repeated horror as such events replay themselves at another time and place while we pretend that affixing a label or pointing the accusing finger of blame somehow advances our security.
-- Nick Catrantzos