How do you measure the impact of a thwarted terror attack?
Last week, French authorities arrested seven men after an eight-month investigation, averting what the interior minister said may have been a “coordinated attack aimed to hit several sites simultaneously.” Just think back to the coordinated terrorist attacks around Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people and the July attack in Nice where 86 died and you can get a sense of the bloodshed and destruction that the arrests likely prevented.
Terrorist incidents happen every day somewhere in the world. Most don’t penetrate our consciousness. Even harder to gauge is the effect of the attacks that are thwarted. While successful attacks make us feel threatened and angry, what of the unsuccessful ones? Is there a way to measure our response to something that doesn’t happen?
Consider: Last month, the head of Britain’s MI5 domestic intelligence agency said that police and intelligence services had disrupted 12 plots to attack Britain since June 2013. In October, three members of a Kansas militia were arrested with nearly 2,000 pounds of firearms and ammunition. They were allegedly planning to blow up an apartment complex occupied by more than 100 Somali residents. In January, a Milwaukee man was arrested and charged with illegally possessing machine guns.
According to the FBI, he had planned a massacre at a Masonic temple.
And there are more. Indeed, according to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, terror plots are disrupted “all the time.” And according to one report from a senior official at the Rand Corporation: “Local law enforcement … have foiled all but a handful of terrorist plots — they are batting .900.” And that’s a very good thing.
So how did authorities manage to accomplish this revolution in public safety? According to a Rand report, it is largely through better policing. “The same close connections to the community that allow for the prevention and investigation of general crime also allows officers to identify individuals or behavior in their jurisdictions that are out of the ordinary and could be terrorist-related as well as prompt citizens to report suspicious behavior to law enforcement.” By contrast, federal agencies empowered by the Patriot Act have not cracked a single major terror case, according to the Washington Times.
These findings are important and should help deter would-be killers and give all of us some well-deserved peace of mind. Law enforcement agencies deserve our praise for doing an ever-better job of preventing terror crimes. And we also must praise the civilians on whom law enforcement depends for information, for helping in the protection effort.
“If you see something, say something” is more than just a catchy phrase. It literally helps keep us all a bit safer.