As security professionals we should be able to discuss threats in a professional manner. It has usually been quite easy for us to discuss foreign terrorism or homegrown violent extremism, which is basically just US citizens who are doing the will of or inspired by foreign terrorists. They are against all of us and therefore Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations kicks in. But when we get into domestic extremism the talks can quickly degenerate into a verbal brawl. And it really should not.
One of the things that perhaps makes this so hard is the history of our country is so convoluted with our own propaganda. For instance, since we won the American Revolution it is a just cause of local self-determination. But the propaganda is then spewed the exact opposite way when one talks about the secession of the southern states. If they had won, they probably would not have had the same ‘just cause’ standard as applied to them in the history books but it would likely be much less one-sided than modern literature with more of it being focused on those states’ individual self-determination. Remember, that history is always written by the victor.
Moreover, we do not want to look at things from our history as terrorism. We do not want to look at the Boston Tea Party for instance as an act of terrorism. But if you take away any emotion, any somehow feeling that you are required to justify history, and look at the incident solely from an academic view, it would be hard to say that it does not fall in line with the core similarities that we find in terrorism definitions which is “the threat or actual violence against a person or people to further an ideological goal.” That goal can be political, social, religious, all of those are idea or ideology-based. History does not need you or I to defend it. It will not changed what happened.
The situation becomes more complicated as our history does not end with the fact the revolutionaries won and the secessionists were defeated. Let us skip ahead to the Red Scare. We had a long grueling ideological battle between our country which is a capitalist country and communism which was rapidly spreading throughout the eastern hemisphere. We had significant amounts of what we termed left-wing violence in the 60s and 70s. I highly encourage that people go Michael Mann Security Services’ Facebook page and check out his videos on left-wing terrorism and anarchist violence. They are very informative. But at the same time we also started seeing right-wing militias, mostly anti-communist militias start building and preparing for this Red Dawn scenario. Most of their violence was petty criminal acts like burglary and armed robbery back then in order to finance their stockpiling activities whereas the left-wing was trying to stop the Vietnam war and burning and bombing colleges.
Now we get to current era. Terrorism experts may disagree but I would say the modern era starts with Timothy McVeigh when it comes to domestic terrorism. As many of us know he used a truck bomb to destroy a federal building which housed a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives office. And here is where things get really sticky with justifying violence. His violence was in answer to violence taken against US citizens by the US Government in the botched arrest attempt at Ruby Ridge and deaths of dozens of people in a religious commune in Waco, Texas.
When we trace our national heritage to a people that overthrew what they considered an oppressive government it becomes very easy for people to stick up for violence. Whether it was those who felt it was just to terrorize institutions to stop what they felt was the US Government throwing them into a meat grinder of a war half a world away on one side or a person believing the US Government is taking direct hand in killing them here at home. It is very viewpoint based. That same sentiment applies today when we have some people who have embraced the idea that US law enforcement is unjustly killing people because of their skin color or that the government is overstepping its authority in taxation, investigation, and regulation of goods and services such as firearms. We all have opinions. The problem comes when we would rather stick to our opinions and so we start parsing things out to try to distance it from the side with which we agree, or we exclude information to fit an ideal instead of reality.
Now we get to more of the crux of the problem today, and that is information quality. When we look at the studies and the material, we have available to us on the issue of terrorism we have to understand the biases of the author. As an intelligence sergeant one of my rules was that my analysts could not use the Southern Poverty Law Center as a primary source of information. I can deal with bias as long as the information is correct. We can take the colored lens off of it. But we found in dealing with our partners that the SPLC did not just try to twist information to fit an agenda but made-up information completely out of whole-cloth to fit their agenda. When we tried to corroborate their information with law enforcement and intelligence partners, we found out that nobody else could support their claims. We also found out that when presented with evidence to counter their narrative they were dismissive, nor would they provide their sources to which they would assure they had. This rendered their intellectual integrity null in my eyes. That is not say that everything they publish is lies, but when you can find no supporting evidence and believe someone is willing to lie to further their agenda you cannot really count on them at all. It just becomes too much of a hassle to use them as a source because you have to go through them with a fine-tooth comb unlike a trusted partner or source that is graded higher on the reliability and integrity scale.
On the right side we see Law Enforcement Today as an example. Usually, the core of their information is at least correct. But it is heavy viewed through a political lens. It can lead you to an incorrect analysis if you cannot peel away the layers of authors’ personal opinions to look at the raw information. This is a website that is best, in my opinion, to use as a springboard to find other websites that talk about the same incident but hopefully from a less-opinionated standpoint. If you see an LET article talking about an incident it probably did happen whereas an incident the SPLC says happened may have not happened. You should always be looking for other reports that confirm your first source. Always look for corroboration. It mostly comes down to a matter of time as to whether you even bother starting with something like SPLC.
Another security professional, Joshua Flint, the owner of Empire Strategic Services brought up a good point in a recent discussion we had. He showed me a LinkedIn article where the author used a good trick, one that really showed their skill in politics. They were a left-leaning author who came out and admitted there is an issue here and there with the left, but overall in their opinion conservatism has many more ills and thus being a leftist is the only way to truly be. See what they did there? They tried to make themselves appear reasonable by admitting that issues exist within their political party. But what they were trying to do is to get the reader’s guard down with that appearance of fairness so the reader would say it was balanced. That is not a totality of righteousness to be able to admit a problem here or there. It does not compare and contrast the two sides in their totality. It simply is thrown out as bait.
As security professionals we need to be doing our due diligence to vet sources, and not just seek out those that conform to our own biases. This is called confirmation bias and it leads to extremely bad things. The Cuban Missile Crisis is one. Our Intelligence Community did not want to believe that the Soviet Union would dare put nuclear weapons in the Western hemisphere so they ignored the indicators until they could no longer deny what they were seeing, which was well after a dangerous capability was in place to threaten the United States. As security professionals we cannot ignore information at the expense of our clients.
Another thing to look at when people point fingers and say this is left-wing or right-wing extremism is look at the incident itself. Is it really left-wing or right-wing? Sometimes things fall more in line with single-issue terrorism. So many things have been bundled up as political terrorism. Anti-abortionists used to be heavily considered a single-issue terrorism. But now it is largely getting lumped in as conservatism because we identify those who believe in Right-to-Life as conservative or right-wing. So, look at how these connections are getting made and ask yourself is it really making sense? The racial supremacists are another great example. No political party in the United States has a party platform based on racial superiority. Now we have a party that’s platform is on gender and racial inequality issues but not inherit genetic superiority. Now there are elements of which these supremacists’ goals may fall in line here or there with a political party but not in their main ideology. Yet, we have allowed politicians and their propagandists to frame it that way.
If we see someone as the boogeyman, we want to believe that they are in cahoots with other boogeymen and that they are all of the same feather. It is easier on our minds then recognizing the convoluted web of alliances, neutralities, and relationships of conveniences. The enemy of my enemy is my friend comes to mind. It is not a true statement always. Sometimes the enemy of my enemy is still our enemy or at least someone we do not want to affiliate with but we are not going to stop them from fighting another enemy.
2020 has been a terrible year. When it comes to right and left extremism, we have to look at the information people are using to justify their causes. We see security professionals trying to parse and exclude left-wing violence and going off of FBI data which is two years old citing right-wing violence has killed more people overall. Possibly in the end the numbers once tallied will still reflect that. But we cannot rely on old information that supports our individual beliefs at the expense of current observations. If I remember right the 2019 crime stats for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting will be published this month. That means 2020 data will likely also not be available until winter 2021. One cannot put off analyzing a situation, waiting for someone else to make authoritative data. Think of it this way: When I hear a loud bang is it better that I decide what it likely is and make a judgement call on what to do or do I wait for someone to confirm it was or was not a gunshot? We have to take it upon ourselves to analyze our observations and make determinations. We have to make qualitative decisions.
Understand that even law enforcement and rigorous academic studies have biases in them. Someone had to make a determination that this specific incident belonged in this category whether it be terrorism, hate crime, or any other category. That likely stemmed from what charges were filed which comes down to attorney plea deals, court convictions, etc. When doing an academic study, the researcher or a panel of researchers decide how to classify information. They set the parameters. Ultimately this means that any study likely has some sort of bias to it. It is a matter of the degree of bias and whether we as consumers of the information can recognize that and whether we allow ourselves to simply go along with it, or we annotate it as an item of concern.
Unfortunately, in some of these professional security groups we see security professionals arguing about the righteousness of a violent act or a threat of a violent act instead of looking at it from their professional standpoint which should be; what does this mean to me, my clients, and my work? Just because you personally support a cause whether right or left does not mean that you ethically get to impose your personal views on your job. When I was at university, I learned it this way; morals are what I personally believe is right or wrong whereas ethics are what as a professional it is right or wrong for me to do on the job. So just because you support the left or the right-wing you cannot just discount it from a professional standpoint.
Using math is an easy way to help do this. Look at it from a statistical standpoint. Using numbers and probability is an easy way to help remove bias. Look at similar past instances and look at distances, just the numbers. How many times has this type of group attacked my client or someone like my client and how far away from us are they? There is a lot more to threat assessments than that but it is a pretty a good starting point for combatting bias. Hopefully, over time if we can start using these counter-bias methodologies we can generate more professional, thoughtful, and productive discussions in these social media groups that are worthy of men and women calling ourselves security professionals and keep it on the track of our jobs and not on our political allegiances.