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Reactions to the New York Attack: Finding the Balance Between Long-Term and Short-Term Goals in Countering Terror

Consider the following scenario:

A man enters a hospital emergency room clutching his chest and complaining of shortness of breath. The attending physician notices the man is morbidly obese and learns he’s also diabetic. The doctor sits the man down, hands him some pamphlets about exercise and healthy diet, and begins explaining the importance of making life-style changes. Twenty minutes later the man suffers a massive heart-attack and dies. The hospital pulls together all of its staff and a committee is formed to discuss how better to assist the local community in changing their eating habits and getting more exercise. The media is contacted and interviews are arranged to help spread the word about healthy alternatives to a sedentary, fast-food lifestyle. The government gets involved, and another committee is formed to discuss formulating a twenty-year plan to educate young people on the dangers of making poor health choices. Millions of dollars in government grants are allocated to raise awareness and educate the masses. Meanwhile a dozen more people die of heart attacks and strokes because all the ER doctors are focused on this new long-term plan.

Some may consider this a far-fetched scenario – but it is a good analogy of our current approach to combating terrorism. After every new terrorist incident, such as what just happened in New York and New Jersey, our media arranges interviews with “experts” on terrorism and launches another round of discussions related to combating radicalization and violent extremism. These panels invariably point out the ease (and speed) with which young people are being radicalized via social media and the internet; the socio-economic influences that push these people towards terrorism; and the need to invest in programs designed to Combat Radicalization. A Google search on the terms “combatting radicalization” will return hundreds of thousands of results – along with many quotes from politicians, business leaders and security experts on the dire consequences of ignoring this growing trend.

There is no arguing that combatting radicalization and investing in programs to win over “at risk” youth is part of any sound, long-term counter-terror program; however, like the patient in the above scenario, it will not stop the next attack — which is already being planned somewhere, somehow, right now. We cannot lose sight of the immediate threats while we pursue long-term, and extremely costly, solutions. Long term and near term strategies do not exist in vacuums; instead, they must work together and be implemented concurrently. At the same time that these strategic plans are being developed, we must focus on detecting and preventing terrorist operations being planned in the near term, regardless of the “who” or “why” behind them. We must develop methods and protocols for sharing actionable intelligence between the public and private sectors. We must provide our first-responders with the ability to keep us “left of boom,” rather than reacting to the threat after it has happened. And we must find the right balance between long-term strategic goals, and identifying and treating the heart attack as soon as it comes through the door.

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