Thursday, May 16, 2013

Can the center hold?

Top of Freedom Tower lifted into place at One World Trade Center.

We published our May issue of ASA News & Notes last Monday, after I spent a good part of the weekend considering how to handle the topic I'd selected.  Writers work in different ways, but I spend more time thinking about what shape my writing topic will take than on the actual writing, once I have worked it out in my mind.

In reviewing numerous research findings on terrorism, including academic papers on what correlations could be made about terrorists, I found that distinctions between mass murderers and terrorists are fairly straightforward, but that how terrorists who operate as "lone wolfs" become radicalized is not so clear.  What is clear is that such persons consider themselves as agents operating for the greater political (and often religious) good, and that they can do tremendous damage to people, facilities and to the human spirit.

Poetry has been a trusted companion all these years, and it often becomes part of my research. After World War I, William Butler Yeats wrote a poem called "The Second Coming," calling up all the melancholia and instincts for good that obtain once some form of resolution follows terrible death and destruction.  Here is the first part of the poem, which surely affected what I wrote about terrorism.

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand."

I would not want to suggest that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the "rough beast" hunching toward Bethlehem that Yeats goes on to describe in the next stanza of his poem, but the recommendation I made in the column was directed at DHS -- to move much more quickly to streamline its intelligence gathering services and clean up its databases; and to adapt sophisticated technology it uses to target terrorists to accomplish these two pieces of work.  Simply lumping 22 agencies under this department has not done the trick, and refinement of the strategy and tools is in order at this time.

If we do not get this work done, then we will be out of time and the center will not hold.  We will see more actions by lone wolfs as well as hostile nation states.  On this soil, not just in the Mideast. 

What can you do?  I would say the single practice you could learn would be to become more situationally aware.  It's very hard to do in a consistent fashion -- rather like saying to someone "do learn yoga and you will be calmer."  A couple of situational awareness practices: when you enter a large building, a movie theater (for instance) or a public event, note in passing where the exits are in case you need them.  Keep your eyes open for suspicious, unattended packages or backpacks or bags.  And, in the words of the New York Police Department campaign, "If you see something, say something."

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