Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Deterrence on college campuses, or what would Doc Holliday do?

According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, deterrence is defined as: a: the inhibition of criminal behavior by fear especially of punishment b: the maintenance of military power for the purpose of discouraging attack.

The recent murders on college campuses resulted in some postulating by having colleges as weapons-free zones the perpetuators were assured a safe environment in which to conduct their violence. Initially, this seemed to be the outcries of NRA lifer members. Almost coincidently the DC gun ban has come before the Supreme Court. Given the climate of DC it seemed almost a slam-dunk that the Supreme Court ruling would uphold the city’s current gun ban. However, the Supreme Court initial ruling seems to be trying to find a balance between an outright ban and the Second Amendment. The mayor of DC feels that personal ownership of firearms will equate to more guns and thus more crimes being committed with those possessing guns. Others will argue that the ban on owning guns in DC has not deterred criminals from committing gun crimes.

I’ve avoided the top of firearms ownership on this blog as it tends to be a polarizing topic. Both sides of the gun rights issue have strong views and tend to ignore arguments contrary to their beliefs. However as I work with leadership at my college to try and prepare the campus for dealing with the possibility of violence, I keep going back to my military roots for solutions short of creating a fortress out of a college campus. I’m not sure if the shootings are Virginia Tech or Northern Illinois University could have been avoided had students or faculty been armed. It does warrant some discussion though as colleges and universities across the nation struggle with how to prevent future shootings on their campuses. On one hand, first impressions of having an armed populace of students and faculty would appear to create a situation ripe for violence. I don’t know of any studies of that show the impact of having legal firearms on campus and the potential impact to preventing crime. On the other hand look at the last time you heard of anyone becoming the victim of crime at a gun show. I’m sure there are a variety of images that come to mind regarding that last statement, depending on your point of view. The point remains that criminals (and terrorists for that matter) look for the softest points of any society or system to attack.

The University of North Carolina (UNC) and Auburn University both lost students recently to random violence. In both of these cases, young women were randomly killed. Both victims were young females traveling alone at the time they were murdered. To my knowledge, neither of the victims were armed. A valid question that should be asked is were the killers emboldened to commit violence by the knowledge they would most likely NOT encounter an armed student? Even if neither of the victims had been armed on the day they were murdered, would the killers have gone through with attacking the victims if there had been a possibility of encountering an armed victim or passerby?

Increasing the presence of guns, some would argue, increases the chances for violent acts committed with firearms. Those who own firearms legally and go through concealed training courses are very responsible citizens. The possibility of a criminal encountering an armed citizen inclined to perforate their physicality with a bullet may give some cause to pause. No one has attacked Ft Knox because the price for failure is just too high. A similar strategy may be needed on college campuses. The would-be criminal needs to consider carefully that failing to choose the right victim (in an environment with armed citizens) could result in bodily injury to his person or even death.

Deterrence is an acceptable foreign policy strategy yet when it comes to providing a safe and secure college environment (especially if deterrence means an armed campus populace) many tend to favor other alternatives. Keeping a campus an open environment means turning colleges and universities into fortresses is an unacceptable (and costly) alternative. Policies and procedures can only go so far in protecting the students and faculty from random violence. Modern society today has produced some of the most irreverent and impolite people seen in many generations. Is it rational to think that these people would be anymore inclined towards civil behavior just because it is written in a student handbook? It may be time to re-evaluate the “weapons free” policies of most colleges and universities. Only by causing criminals to rethink their courses of action BEFORE they commit murder and mayhem can we hope to increase the safety and security of our campuses.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Local Task Forces

Last week, four people, including one from Cincinnati, with ties to an eco-terrorism network have been indicted on charges connected to a 1999 fire at Michigan State University genetic research office. The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) claimed credit for the fire claiming the university was conducting research genetic engineering of crops. The story followed the fires set out in California targeting a “green” housing development. Ohio in general, and Cincinnati in particular, are not the first areas one would think of to find an eco-terrorist. Most of the cities in Ohio were founded on heavy manufacturing and industry, not prime areas to target for saving pristine environments. The arrest though illustrates an important point for all of us concerned about the safety and security of our communities.

People will to commit violent acts, terrorists if you will (but this may be too limiting a term), live everywhere and anywhere just like other people who don’t plan to commit violent acts. It makes sense to live somewhere away from where you plan to commit an attack so that you can plan and prepare in obscurity. It is easier to obtain the materials and recruit people for the operation. Training is best conducted in more remote areas as compared to more densely populated areas where the presence of such activities could be discovered. As has been written before on this blog and on other sites, the majority of federal funds to detect and prevent such behaviors is more focused on major metropolitan areas. As a result, smaller cities and rural communities are more appealing to locating a terrorist base of operations. The ready availability of high-speed Internet connections and cellular services even in the most remote areas of the United States makes it more practical than ever to locate a terrorist training camp out in the far flung parts of the nation.

Locating a training camp or base of operations in a remote location does present challenges for funds and logistics. Most support groups for terrorist activity tends to be centered in large cities. Large provide networks and jobs for supporters to provide funds and supplies to the operatives. Creating an elaborative support system may leave telltale signs for federal agencies to detect therefore groups may opt to be more autonomous and operate with only a tacit association to a larger group. The need for autonomy does not negate the need for funding. One of the easiest (and perhaps lucrative) means to fund a small cell operation then is through illegal drugs. Marijuana and methamphetamine are two illegal drugs that can be produce and sold locally providing the terrorist group with ready cash, weapons and other supplies.

The link between terrorist organizations and illegal drug activity dates back to at least the fall of the Soviet Union. The Soviets sponsored a number of terrorist groups that were based on political ideologies counter to the West. Without the Soviet Union to provide funding, terrorist groups based in political ideology began to fall by the wayside. Groups interested in committing acts of violence against the United States needed to find another funding stream. Marijuana and methamphetamine, both of which can be produced locally without depending on outside organizations, became a new way to fund some terrorist groups. During the last part of the 20th Century, many of the militia groups funded their activities through the production and sale of methamphetamine. The combination of a group of well armed paranoids plus a drug which increased violent tendencies, made for an especially dangerous situation. The drug cartels of South America are particularly violent and are well connected with various arms dealers throughout the world. Given the potential for illegal drug activity to fund future terrorist attacks, it seems strange that the Bush Administration would thus cut funding for the Byrne Grants. The Byrne Grants fund drug task forces throughout the United States. Most of these drug task forces consist of various local, county and state agencies focused on a particular region. The drug task forces seem to be ideally suited to assist the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies in identifying possible terrorist activity by drug organizations. Despite the potential to be a force multiplier for homeland security, Byrne Grants by two-thirds. The incredulous rational is that drugs are no longer the threat they once were! I’m not sure what studies were used to draw that conclusion but merely perusing the local newspaper seems to contradict that claim. The reduction in Byrne Grants might make sense if there was a corresponding increase in other federal funds to keep the drug task forces going. So far that does not appear to be the case.

A better solution would be to broaden the focus of drug task forces to include homeland security. The task forces embody the concepts of inter-agency cooperation and communication exposed by FEMA and other agencies. To risk losing these agencies and the incredibly amount of intelligence produce by the task forces is just too great to ignore. As the story at the beginning of this article illustrates, we can never know who or where a terrorist may decide to reside. Reducing the number of local agencies out there to help detect such activities seems to be contrary to our emphasis on increasing homeland security.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Individual Responsibility

Today continues a disturbing trend of bomb scares, explosions and the discovery of poisonous materials. Earlier this morning, a low-level explosive was detonated in front of the military recruiting station in Times Square. The device appears to have been rudimentary and placed, ironically, in an ammunition box. At the University of California, Davis two partially assembled pipe bombs were discovered. Neither of these cases appear to be related to “terrorist” acts. Almost immediately following these two stories, the Denver City and County Building was evacuated due to a bomb threat. Details regarding how the threat was made are still unknown at this time. Last week, ricin was found in a Las Vegas hotel room.

It is doubtful that these incidents are related but unfortunately the appetite of the 24/7 news networks are keeping these stories in minds of the public. Concerned citizens will be demanding their public safety officials reassure them that they face no danger. Both the mayor of New York City and the police commissioner had to answer repeated questions from the media regarding the safety of the city. New York City covers some 322 square miles yet it only took one small explosion (that did not injure anyone or cause any discernable damage) to make the headlines. The UC Davis pipe bombs weren’t even fully assembled yet their discovery led to top billing on the Fox News website for a time. The ricin case in Las Vegas did include the finding of other materials suggesting the poison was going to be used in some sort of an attack. For those who may be unfamiliar with ricin, it is a poison found naturally in castor beans. Ricin can be made from the waste material left over from processing castor beans into castor oil. Ricin can be in the form of a powder, a mist, or a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid.

While citizens have the right to be concerned, they also need to realize how rare these incidents still are. Most citizens are far more likely to deal with a natural disaster or some type of accident than they are to face a terrorist attack. Newer and more sophisticated passive detection systems are being purchased and installed throughout the US making it harder for large explosive devices to be placed near points of vulnerability. More and more employees from public safety as well as public utilizes are receiving training on how to restore and maintain critical infrastructures during the event of a catastrophic disaster (to include a major terrorist attack). These same officials are insuring our infrastructure is as hardened to an attack as possible.

The real threat from these incidents is the potential over-reaction by public safety officials in responding to citizen’s concerns. Balancing the safety and well being of our communities without giving up our civil liberties will be the real test. It is one thing to build a bomb but what about some who happens to have all of the pre-cursor materials? Do we associate malice intent with possession? Law enforcement agencies struggle a few years ago with the term “profiling”. Associating certain behaviors with certain racial or ethnic groups became extremely controversial. Instead of racial or ethnic profiling, now we could start having a profiling of sorts based on possession of certain materials (yes, we already have that to a degree with illegal drugs). For instance, those who like to hunt may also reload their ammunition which means large amounts of gunpowder on hand. Target shooters may stockpile large amounts of ammunition. Castor beans have many legitimate uses besides producing ricin. Will this behaviors suddenly become grounds for neighbors or friends to contact authorities? How many hours will be wasted potentially investigating citizens engaged in lawful and peaceful activities?

Recent shootings at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech have caused a major re-evaluation of security procedures by college officials nationwide. The challenge remains how to increase security of an environment designed with an open architecture? Colleges and universities are created to foster the open exchange of ideas and as such the design of campuses are intended to reflect that mindset. Increasing security using techniques such as requiring the wear of identification badges, accepting random searches of personal items before entering buildings or even randomly searching dorms with bomb sniffing dogs seems anathema to what colleges and universities are supposed to embody. Yet without revamping current campus security practices to some degree, students and faculty will remain exposed to the random violent attack.

Individual responsibility and awareness then seems to remain the most prudent and least intrusive approach to safety and security. Individuals need to take responsibility for their safety, go back to the basics if you will;
- Be aware of your surroundings
- Know where the fire exits are.
- Know where the emergency call boxes are.
- Insure your cell phone is charged.
- Know where and how to take cover in the event of a shooting or explosion.
- Know who to contact in the event you notice suspicious behavior.
- Don’t disregard your gut feelings; if someone makes you feel uncomfortable there is probably a good reason (think about the number of people that felt uncomfortable around the Virginia Tech shooter BEFORE he committed murder). Avoid such individuals, if possible, and report them to the appropriate authorities. Even if reporting their behavior isn’t feasible, at least let someone you trust know about your feelings.
- Always let someone know where you are

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Of Distinctive Doctrines, Systems or Theories

According the American Heritage Dictionary, “ism” is a distinctive doctrine, system or theory. Combining “terror” and “ism” we get ‘the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.’ Adding the prefix ‘eco’ to ‘terrorism’ the FBI defines this as the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against innocent victims or property by an environmentally-oriented, sub-national group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature."

Eco-terrorism made the news the other day as a result of five luxury homes being sent ablaze (apparently) by eco-terrorists in protest of luxury homes being built in rural cluster developments. The group that claiming responsibility is the Earth Liberation Front (E.L.F.) which, according to the New York Times, is “a loosely organized group that has been linked to multiple bold acts of eco-terrorism across the Northwest and elsewhere for two decades.” These claims are still being investigated at this time.

Eco-terrorism is just the latest “ism” to enter our lexicon even though the group in this particular case, E.L.F., has been active for over two decades. Whenever something like this occurs, it hits the media with a vengeance temporarily even eclipsing the Democratic primaries. On one hand, the fires in Washington state help remind us that “terrorism” takes on many different forms and violent acts committed by wide range of groups, both foreign and domestic. The attacks of 9/11 still has the majority of national counter-terrorism agencies (including DHS and the FBI) looking at foreign terrorist groups. However, this recent act of terrorism in Washington demonstrates that those in the safety and security arena need to have a broader focus.

The likelihood of Al Qaeda attacking a city such as Fayetteville, Arkansas (population 58,000) is virtually non-existent. It is too far inland and located away from major metropolitan centers to make is an attractive target to most foreign terrorist groups. Remember, a foreign terrorist group needs to strike a target their supporters are familiar with and need to maximize the impact of their attack. Therefore a mid-size city such as Fayetteville would fail to make the impact that an attack against Chicago or San Francisco would have. However, this is not to say Fayetteville, Arkansas is free from the possibility of experiencing some type of terrorist attack. Fayetteville happens to be home of the University of Arkansas which means a diverse population of college students and a number of research facilities. Students committing acts of violence recently made the news at both Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech. As those who work or study at colleges and universities can attest, providing a secure and safe environment while maintaining the open architecture associated with campus life. The research conducted at major universities sometimes is contentious leading to protests which can occasionally become confrontational. In rare cases, it can lead to violence.

Safety and security management experts need to resists the temptation to focus on the next “ism” when developing the response plans and training scenarios. Response plans need to remain focused on those threats and vulnerabilities most likely to be encountered in your community. Unfortunately, the federal agencies that control grants tend to associate funding with a particular threat. Eco-terrorism may become the future nexus for training dollars available through DHS which would be unfortunate. Communities most in need of assistance are the ones least likely to meet the thresholds created under federal guidelines. While eco-terrorism certainly poses a threat for some communities, perhaps a better way to look at the situation in Washington is simply domestic terrorism. Domestic terrorist can target ANY vulnerability that can be exploited within the community. If we change our thinking towards this broader perspective, than a little noticed story from earlier in the month takes prominence over simple eco-terrorism.

According to the American Coalition for Ethanol website, “U.S. ethanol production is reaching unprecedented levels, growing America's ability to supply a portion of its own transportation fuel. Currently there are 142 ethanol production facilities operating in the U.S. and 67 more under construction. Today, about 40% of the nation's ethanol facilities are owned by farmers and other local investors.” The mandate to move towards cleaner burning fuels in automobiles has lead to a boon for corn growers, however the increased number of ethanol plants increases the need for communities to re-assess their vulnerabilities. Most communities have yet to recognize the unique threats posed by ethanol fires. According to a recent AP story, ethanol fires are harder to put out than gasoline fires and require a special type of firefighting foam. Most fire departments, especially those in smaller cities or volunteer departments, don’t carry the foam. Water does not work against ethanol fires and the foam normally used to fight gasoline fires is ineffective against ethanol. Small amounts of ethanol that are used in E85 fuel is not a problem. The real challenge for firefighters is dealing with tanker trucks or ethanol refinery fires. The foam need to fight these fires is expensive and would be hard for smaller departments to justify, yet these may be the same departments dealing with a tanker truck fire on a remote stretch of highway. A terrorist or saboteur at an ethanol plant could create set a fire at an ethanol plant or cause a tanker truck to wreck in a remote area. The increasing number of ethanol plants means more communities could be faced with this problem. It also means that a wider variety of malcontent could use ethanol as a weapon to create fear and panic.

Before we end up putting “ism” behind another word (and thus creating a funding criteria), let’s go back to the basics and use “all hazards” as the criteria.