End the Debate, Get Serious by Al Sikes

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Planes were turned into bombs! New York and Washington were under attack. These facts and the gruesome aftermath awakened America and its intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

As various post-9/11 inquiries made clear, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies had, to be charitable, misinterpreted signals that an attack was in preparation. In the aftermath of the attacks, with new found resolve and highly focused action plans, America was again safe although not invulnerable.

Periodically questions are asked about both internal and external threats. Often the heads of various executive agencies and legislative committees speak of the hundreds of threats that were discovered and blocked. It is said the details of the intelligence and police work have to remain undisclosed because methods and sources need to be protected. Fair enough.

I wonder how many potential domestic shootings have been blocked. All we know is not nearly enough.

Now, we can all concede that stopping a lone actor is very difficult; witness the suicide bombings that bedevil both police and military around the world. This complexity alone means that all of our intelligence and law enforcement resources must act in intense concentration and coordination if school, workplace and public gathering attacks are to be minimized.

One thing is certain, the next attack is only a week or so away and those who survive will indicate shock that such an egregious act was possible in their community. And then law enforcement and the press will begin to connect the dots and it will quickly become apparent that the shooting or vehicle or knife attack could have been foreseen or at the very least, suspected.

In the Florida shooting case, the New York Times reported: “Almost immediately after Mr. Cruz turned up at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Wednesday and, the authorities said, killed 17 people with a semiautomatic rifle, the disconnected shards of a difficult life began to come together. Students and neighbors traded stories of their experiences with him and wondered if anything could have been done.

Some of the stories fell within the bands of typical teenage mischief-making. But others — including a comment on YouTube Mr. Cruz may have posted last year saying he wished to be “a professional school shooter” — were considerably more troubling. The comment, left under the name “nikolas cruz,” was reported to the F.B.I. by someone who did not know Mr. Cruz, and the agency said on Thursday that it had been unable to determine who had posted it.”

My guess is that if the YouTube post had been made by a person with a Middle Eastern name and the stated intention was to plant a bomb, the FBI would have located the person who made the post.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, predictable arguments underscored how feckless our leaders have become. The lack of better gun control was cited as the problem. Mental illness was a close second. We can agree that if the shooter had been weaponless or stable this would not have occurred. We are, of course, constitutionally barred from emptying America of guns. And, taking signs of mental illness as sufficient evidence to put people into protective custody would fail on both legal and operational fronts.

After the shooting President Trump said several things, but this sentence captured, perhaps, a thin thread of hope: “Later this month, I will be meeting with the nation’s governors and attorneys general where making our schools and our children safer will be our top priority. It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference, we must actually make that difference.”
So what should the public expect—a show of concern without a plan or the intention of concentrated and coordinated work? Or worse, another in a long line of debating moments about guns and mental health? Or just perhaps, the kind of resolve that followed September 11, 2001—an action plan?

America has top flight intelligence resources. They can, if intensely focused, predict and act. But without top rank intelligence, no plan will succeed.

It is hard for me to imagine a more important goal than securing our nation and its schools, churches, workplaces and public gathering spots. It is not acceptable for these all too frequent events to be relegated to debates and calls for prayer. American intelligence and law enforcement agencies can be smart and must be.

And if they need better information on gun ownership, then those that seek to block such access should not hold public office. Social media activists can undoubtedly shine an intense light on the blockers.

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

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