By Common Sense Cop*
Oh dear goodness…London bridge is falling down.
Date line 3/22/2017 – Another terror event in London. Five people are killed when a suspect runs into them and then stabs a police officer. The suspect is shot by armed police who responded to the event.
So here are some thoughts, and as controversial and unpopular as these might be I base them on my experience in policing and large scale incident management.
Many people with whom I have discussed, many of them experts in the same or similar disciplines, have made the parallel between an event involving the deaths of 5 people (including the suspect and a police officer) in South Africa, and how this event featured in the media play, public reaction, as well as the response communication by authorities in the United Kingdom. This correlation is often expressed as reflecting negatively in terms of how accustomed South Africans have become to crime and violence, and yes we are certainly a jaded lot- however there is another viewpoint here. As a trained police officer I like to examine the pure facts without overlaying any of the superfluous elements to it.
So, what happened actually:
An intentional motor vehicle accident occurred. During this accident several people were injured and three were killed. The suspect then stabbed an unarmed police officer, after which the suspect was shot by another responding and armed police officer. All of these events preceded the dramatic overreaction which forced the world to hold its breath and watch.
If one removes all the artificial hyperbole then this episode appears in and of itself as being no more impactful than any other crime event, bus accident, train accident or small aircraft accident. All of the follow-on impact that was added to it; the dramatic media pictures, the closing of traffic and transit all over London, the outpouring of grief on social media, and the state of heightened national angst- was an artificial overlay.
Now was this dramatic overreaction useful?
- For the media outlets certainly. It helped sell news reports and increase their individual brand exposure. It helped bolster the validity of these media houses in an economic environment which is particularly harsh on their business model and it provided them an opportunity to shore up quickly waning credibility.
- For Social Media platforms it was certainly helpful, for all the same reasons that it helped traditional media. Except that social media is in its growth phase when it comes to sharing information, and capturing the human drama at an individual level is a very powerful capability in driving emotive connection.
- Did it help the British people? It cemented their fears that terrorism was an insidious threat that could reach out and touch them anywhere. It provided some the opportunity to confirm their beliefs about religions and people, and it provided a platform for those who wished to share in the drama
So, did it benefit the police response in London? No, not really; the event had occurred and yes, whilst there were chances of sympathetic, coordinated or follow-on attacks, all the response really achieved was to highlight how woefully ill-equipped the UK Security Services are for actually dealing with terrorism. Yes…I went there, and even though I mourn the loss of a fellow police officer and I congratulate the responding officer who shot the suspect, I am filled with amazement that senior police officers would make public statements on this being “the day that they feared and hoped would never happen.” Really? A traffic collision and a stabbing are the events you feared but hoped would never happen? Newsflash, Commissioner Mark Rowley: any police force worth its badge should be prepared to deal with such events as a matter of course.
Allow me to bend the English language and say “let’s be even more real”: the attack consisted of the traffic incident, then the suspect alighted from his vehicle pushed past police officers at the gate, stabbed a police officer, and was eventually shot by an armed response officer. Yet, in their quest to cling to outmoded ideas of policing, no one in UK police management will admit that at least one life could have been saved if the police officers were armed as a matter of course. The terrorist would certainly not have been able to push past armed officers manning a gate after they had already witnessed the incident that just unfolded in front of them. The truth is that policing in the UK is only possible by dramatic overreaction and incident-forced intervention. There is simply no mechanism to manage an event of this nature in a low-key manner. In so doing the British Police have given the victory to the terrorists.
You see, dear vaunted counter-terrorism experts, Terrorism 101 tells us that the purpose of terror is to terrorize. By creating this huge, dramatic, and pointless overreaction all you are doing is sealing the deal, upping the terrorist recruitment drive, and giving the terrorists their victory. Yep…aided by the media you have all succeeded in making the situation worse, not better.
Back to my original point. Some will view this event and how it was reported as an indication of failures in other police forces. Yet in South Africa, America, Israel, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Columbia and a myriad of other places, policemen and women deal with stabbings and traffic collisions (even intentional ones) every day as a matter of course. Off- and on-duty police officers intervene and stop events all the time, armed citizens defend themselves often, and because of the lack of drama no one except those directly involved are any the wiser and life continues as it would. Are all of those incidents terror attacks? Most certainly not. Were some of them? Well, we don’t know.
And that is exactly the point.
*Common Sense Cop is a nom de plume used by an independent policing and incident management subject matter expert.