In the fight against terrorism, we’re used to hearing: “If you see something, say something.”
“People are seeing things, but they’re not always saying something,” one expert said.
But we don’t say something when we see something. Instead, too many people blame the authorities, gun laws in this country, mental health workers, or political correctness — we do everything but speak up. Now Americans are coping with the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
What can individuals do to prevent possible future terror attacks, as horrendous as the notion of additional attacks may be?
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“We know from research people are seeing things, but they’re not always saying something,” Dr. John G. Horgan, a professor in the Global Studies Institute at Georgia State University, told LifeZette.
Horgan has studied lone-wolf terrorists. He has found that most people in the killer’s life were aware of his or her grievances — this includes friends, family members, and coworkers.
The Orlando shooter’s parents say they had no idea their son was planning an attack. Omar Mateen’s ex-wife claimed he showed erratic behavior and beat her during their marriage. People who saw Mateen at the Pulse club before Sunday say he vacillated between sullenness and sudden, violent behavior.
Maybe some people did say something — Mateen was previously investigated by the FBI. But maybe they didn’t.
“In over 60 percent of cases, the offender even told others about their intention to engage in violence. So the idea that we don’t see it coming is a myth in many, many cases. We do see it coming, but we choose not to report it,” Horgan said.
Between Rock and Hard Place?
It’s easy to blame authorities or mental health counselors for missing the signs of a possible terror attack. Horgan said the FBI is perennially stuck between a rock and a hard place — if they intervene early, they’re accused of entrapment. If they’re too late, they’re accused of failure.
Said Horgan, “We live in a country where people can say whatever they want, but it is unrealistic to believe the FBI or any other agency can do this on their own. They can’t.”
Other people tend to blame mental health professionals for not doing a better job of screening people — but terrorists may never be screened for mental illness, let alone reach out for help. So can mental health professionals really be to blame?
People don’t act in time because they convince themselves that what they see is not serious enough to report.
“I don’t understand how mental health professionals are in any way relevant to this,” Horgan said. “Terrorism is not caused by mental illness. That’s not to say that some mentally ill people don’t engage in terrorism — but this is a social problem, not a mental health one.”
A new study in the journal Violence and Gender found that the public and politicians have unrealistic expectations for mental health professionals’ ability to determine which patients are likely to be violent in the future.
The only person to blame for the massacre in Orlando is Omar Mateen. But everyone can play a better role in preventing terrorism or violent attacks. Considering that this attack (just like the one in San Bernardino) was not in a major metropolis such as New York City, the public needs to be on alert — even those who live in a rural area.
“We need to first stop thinking that all terrorism can be prevented. It cannot. This is a fact of life today and we have to live with it,” Horgan added.
Forget the Fear
Reporting suspicious activity won’t guarantee there are no more attacks, but it can certainly help stop some activity. People don’t act in time because they convince themselves that what they see is not serious enough to report — or perhaps they’re just afraid of speaking to the police, Horgan said. Another reason is that we do not want to infringe on someone else’s privacy.
People fear speaking up for a number of reasons, said Dr. Susan Heitler, a therapist in Denver, Colorado. They may stay quiet out of fear the questionable person will come after them. Some people may not want to get the person in trouble; they wouldn’t want action taken based on an assumption.
“People are very private,” said Heitler. “They also get concerned about invading someone else’s privacy.”
Some people also fear being discriminatory or not politically correct when it comes to a suspect’s race or religion.
Not all acts of terror are carried out by Muslims or people of Middle Eastern descent. But some are. That’s why all people — regardless of race or religion — need to be reported if they seem suspicious.
Call the police if you see something suspicious. You’re not profiling; you’re using an innate sense of discernment that could save lives, the same one that has saved you from danger in the past. When you call the authorities, you do not have to give your name. There’s a whole infrastructure dedicated to taking reports — the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative (NSI). So why not use it?
If our nation, collectively, aims not to be judgmental based on ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs, why are we so cautious when it comes to alerting others to shady activity that could kill us? It’s time to put fears of being judgmental, racist, and politically incorrect aside and think about our safety — our lives. We have to recognize the role we can play.
We can have a profound impact if we are vigilant and brave enough to act on our own suspicions.