Underestimating the Threat of Domestic Terrorism
Whether it’s pandemic, terrorism, massive flooding, or some other disaster, the US government never seems to be ready enough. Like military forces preparing for the last war, we as a nation prepare for the last disaster. In 1992, for example, Los Angeles was extremely well prepared for a devastating earthquake. They got a man-made disaster instead: the Rodney King riots. Completely unprepared, the city had to call in the California National Guard, reinforced by federal troops. How could the people running Los Angeles have done a better job?
“All-hazards” risk analysis. That is to say, they could have thought about all the threats facing Los Angeles and done some analysis on which ones posed the greatest risks. The risk from the threat of earthquake would have to be evaluated relative to the risk associated with civil unrest – then resources could be apportioned accordingly. Threats and risks are not the same thing. Here’s the formula:
Risk = (Threat + Vulnerability) – Capability.
There’s no need to invoke “math anxiety” here. What this says is that risks can be prepared for – and managed – by identifying all threats, understanding the vulnerabilities we face, and developing the capabilities we need to confront the threats. For details on the all-hazards risk analysis process we teach at the Naval Postgraduate School, see Chapter 8 of Fighting Back: What Governments Can Do About Terrorism.
My classroom colleague, Jim Petroni, taught me what he calls “The 90% Rule”. By the time a disaster is upon us, 90% of everything we can do to manage it effectively is gone. Enter the Corona virus Pandemic.
At the end of 2019, the US government was ready to defend the country against the threat of Chinese, Russian, or Iranian aggression. Our national leadership was ready to deal with threats from hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, and Islamist terrorism. They were not ready to defend us against a virus that threatens more than just our lives. Now we have a health crisis, and an economic crisis. A foreign policy crisis cannot be far behind (and there are many candidates for that).
Another threat the US government has underestimated is “domestic terrorism”. I put that term in quotes because it means different things to different people. What I mean here is home-grown acts of terrorism, carried out mostly by our own right-wing extremists. Mass shootings are distinguished from terrorism by their lack of political agendas, but let’s just say that the USA has a lot of people, armed to the teeth, shooting at a wide spectrum of targets. Whether it’s terrorism or not is a legal issue. Death by mass shooting or high explosive – coming from within American society – is both a growing threat and a major risk. This is not terrorism imported from the Middle East; we can execute our own terrorist acts without outside help, thank you very much.
In my second thriller novel, A More Perfect Union, I wanted to showcase this threat. Setting the story in 1999 reminds readers that the domestic threat has been around since before the Islamist threat ramped up. The book features heroes, villains, revenge, death, leadership, loyalty, love, justice… and everything in between (action doesn’t have to prevent novelists from tackling big ideas). The threat is worse now than it was in 1999, largely because of social media. Domestic Terrorism must be evaluated as a risk to the American people right alongside earthquakes, Islamist terrorism, and riots in our streets. Indeed, widespread rioting by armed “militiamen” may be the first sign that large-scale terrorist activity is possible.
Even, I dare say, probable.