Dealing with Terrorist Threats

E-mail threats were delivered to both the New York and Los Angeles school districts today, resulting in widely different responses. LA consulted officials and enforcement authorities within the state’s school hierarchy and decided to close all schools in an abundance of caution. NY widened their consultation to include the police and FBI and decided that it was a hoax. Whether either of them took the right course is not dependent on how things turn out. That involves hindsight. The point is that we probably need a systematic approach managed by the federal government for dealing with what will no doubt be a continuing situation.

As I write this, word is coming out of the specifics of these e-mail threats. I think NY got it right.

It doesn’t seem plausible to me that simply assuming the worst in all situations can possibly make sense. That would allow either real terrorists or even pranksters to bring our normal life to a halt. On the other hand, who wants to make a call that might place innocents at risk? Actually, such threats have been occurring for a long time. It is only recently, with the rise of Islamic terrorism, that they raise special concerns.

One relevant aspect occurs to me. There have certainly been instances where Islamic terrorists have made general threats to harm us, sometimes even referring to specific cities or types of venues. But I can’t recall an instance where a particular target and general time frame was provided in a threat that turned out to be a genuine precursor to an attack. That doesn’t match their modus operandi. Their primary goal is to inflict maximum harm, not just to frighten us. In contrast, IRA terrorists in the UK often did exactly that because they wanted to make a point without mass casualties.

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