Is he a terrorist? Is he linked to an Islamic extremist group? If he is linked, how could he be a member of the United States Military? How could he be right under our noses and no one know whether he was a terrorist planning an attack on those he knew and worked with? All these questions and more surface in the aftermath of the Foot Hood killings; questions that should be asked as part of our efforts to understand and do everything in our power to prevent future acts of violence from occurring.
The day after the Foot Hood incident, another attack unfolded in Orlando Florida; a case of workplace violence that ended tragically in death and injury, as well. Some of the same questions asked by the survivors asked at Fort Hood were asked in Orlando: Why did it happen? How could this happen? How could a person we know commit such a heinous and terrifying act?
The questions are natural. We want to know ‘why’ in order to prevent future violence from occurring. This is a noble, yet very difficult goal to achieve because most of us will never experience violence in our lives, breeding a complacent mindset that says: “It will never happen here!
“It will never happen here” are words we cannot afford to utter, yet they always seem to follow in the aftermath of a shooting. I have written much on the signs and signals of crime and danger and it’s an important topic to attempt to understand. Here I want to focus on the criminal and the terrorist: are there any differences in how they act? How are they motivated? What is their level of commitment? Does the difference really matter when it comes to stopping their actions?
First let me say, I am a firm believer in Sun Tzu’s point: know your adversary. That stanza has stood the test of time and can make all the difference in the world when preparing to prevent violence and investigating in the aftermath. There is a second piece of the old Sun Tzu verse we seem to forget, and that is: “Know your enemy and KNOW YOURSELF and you will not lose in one hundred battles.” This is the powerful missing element that will allow us to stop these types of events from happening as they are unfolding, and better yet, prior to shots being fired. How? By understanding what makes a criminal or terrorist tick; by knowing the differences between the two; and how do those who would do us harm persevere, and how is that perseverance similar to how most good folks like ourselves strive to live our lives to the fullest, day in and day out, despite these tumultuous times?
Criminals and terrorists both have objectives. It does not matter to me whether they want to blow something up, steal something or commit murder. What does matter is that I know there are people out there plotting crimes and acts of terror, be it murder in a school by a young person who has lost their way; a worker who feels he is owed something from his employer; a jilted lover who feels betrayed; or the man who feels is religion has been mocked. What I do need to know is that people respond to these types of incidents differently. Some are emotionally and socially secure enough to let things roll off of them, like water off a duck’s back. Others have had a life full of hurt and seek counseling to deal with the pain of real or perceived hurt. There are those who are hurt and bold enough to confront and deal with the hurt in a way that may leave ill feelings yet gratification at dealing with the problem head on and creating a feeling of closure. Others lock up the hurt deep inside yet seem to be able to deal with it in a healthy way. Most times, individuals deal with these things and continue on with healthy productive lives. However those who would do us harm fail to cope with hurts and wrongs in a healthy way, and let perceived or real betrayal, anger, frustration, hurt, depression, anxiety, loss of control drive them to isolation, misguided thoughts, and possibly to plots to harm others. There is still time to find a bridge between us and them to prevent bad acts from taking place. There are those few, who, no matter what, will always deal in violence, but they are the minority; the sociopaths of the world who thrive on violence and doing others harm. Sociopaths dwell in a world all their own and will always stalk our world looking to do harm in ways that hurt or deprive others. But there are still others, not sociopaths but those who adopt a warped ideology or religious path to attempt to deal with their personal demons – and these individuals can be stopped if the rest of us are ever-alert to the signs and signals of danger, and if we possess the strength of character to reach out to stop it when red flags appear. Red flags may include behavioral changes, isolation, inappropriate or severe reactions to normal events, giving away belongings and extreme stress or conflict.
It comes down to doing what is right, even when it feels uncomfortable or we worry that we may be opening ourselves up to embarrassment or liability. The legal world needs to understand this as well. There is a vast difference between people attempting to help a person in extreme conflict in an effort to prevent violence and a person spreading rumors in an effort to disgrace or defame someone. Society should accept interventions, as legitimate even if we are wrong in our analysis when trying to root out violence. We will be wrong at times, yet most times we will intervene and prevent violence from unfolding or in a suicide type incident. If malicious intent is the reason behind our involvement, then the legal system can step in. Perhaps we should be seeking legal advice along with other collaborative efforts involving all professionals within an organization or community such as legal counsel, health professionals, law enforcement, friends and family, teachers etc, much earlier so the person in crisis is dealt with in the most delicate and professional way in an effort to prevent violence. Until we are ready to take that step, people will continue to ignore the signs, violence will continue to unfold, and in the aftermath we will continue to scratch our heads in shock and talk about all we knew before, but ignored. In the end, the fault lies in the person who commits an act of violence and takes the lives of others leaving his loved ones to suffer and grieve. But if we are truly serious about preventing these acts in the future, we must harness the power of what we know beforehand, combine that with the strength of character to intervene, share what we know with law enforcement, health professionals and others, and be part of the solution. I believe we can act proactively. And we must.