Bloody October shows our flaws in confronting mass killings

Bloody October shows our flaws in confronting mass killings
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The Halloween season has been a bloody month of terror for America. Opening on Oct. 1 in Las Vegas, moving to New York for Halloween and now the stunning incident in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

New York’s Halloween terrorist attack hit very close to home. As my wife and I were preparing our young children for the holiday in our Virginia suburb, I heard the news. I contacted my brother who lives in Lower Manhattan to make sure his trick-or-treating kids were safe.

Just weeks earlier, I had stayed only blocks from the attack, and I had a very emotional visit to the 9/11 Memorial at Freedom Tower. 

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What do these massacres have in common? Perhaps little at first glance. But the common problem is a combination of both weakness and misdirection in Washington. On the one hand, legislators can’t focus on fixing the prevalence of guns in the hands of violent men.

 

On the other, there's a belief that immigration reform will somehow fix terror. One approach is defeatist and weak. The other is just plain off target.

True, how and when New York’s truck terrorist was radicalized is a central question we Americans need to answer in order to help prevent future attacks. Did he come to America from the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan in 2010 with the intention to kill, or did something trigger his evil inclinations?

Most experts seem to think these go-it-alone terrorists are pushed over the edge into violence shortly before they commit their terrible acts. 

So, we need to face the fact that America confronts the twin threats of ISIS-inspired terrorist-madmen like Sayfullo Saipov, who carried out the New York Halloween attack, killing at least 8, and the Devin Kelly-type terrorist-madman, who killed at least 20 in a Texas church in cold blood.

Indeed, in the years since 9/11, a similar number of Americans have died at the hands of ISIS-inspired terrorists as other violent terrorists. And if the likes of Stephen Paddock-type madman who rained death on 58 in Las Vegas are counted, the non-ISIS-type threat is greater. 

Just as we Americans need to understand the pathways to violence of the Sayfullo Saipovs of this world to better keep ourselves safe, so to do we need to understand the pathways to violence of the Devin Kellys and Stephen Paddocks. 

A tiny bit of good news for New Yorkers and for all of us in this awful chapter is that Saipov was captured alive, which will enable him to be interrogated, tried and convicted for his heinous act.

So, unless he completely stonewalls interrogators, we will develop insights into his twisted and wicked mindset and hopefully put that to use both in law enforcement and in the public lexicon.

But we also need answers to other questions. First, what can we do in the U.S. to prevent vehicular attacks with rented trucks, incidents that have become far more common in the past year in Europe? Should there be special controls on rented trucks? Let’s not forget that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing where Timothy McVeigh killed 168 was also carried out with a rented truck. 

Second, is there more we can do to prevent mass murders with guns? Is there more that local communities — both American Muslims and non-Muslims — can do to identify these potential evil-doers, or head off their drive for violence before it erupts? 

Third, would President Trump’s travel ban have protected us? Would expanding the travel ban be the strong thing to do, or would it simply weaken us as a nation and show that we are cowering to the terrorists? Or, should we focus our energies more on the threats that terrorism experts tell us are the most important — online radicalization and access to automatic weapons?

New Yorkers set an example for Americans and sent a powerful message to the world by continuing on with their Halloween celebrations unbowed. Hopefully, the terrorists internalize this message and realize their cowardly acts cannot defeat a people and a nation built on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Las Vegas soldiers on, too. It is too soon to know how tiny Sutherland Springs will react in the days ahead.

As the father of three young children whose only experience with blood, thank God, is from scrapes, cuts and Halloween, I sure hope we Americans — both ordinary citizens and Washington legislators alike — can jettison the rhetoric, focus on expert analytics and get serious about the twin problems at hand.

If we as a nation — from law enforcement, to local communities, to our political leaders — can develop a more-nuanced understanding of why these sick individuals perpetuate such wicked violence, we will have honored those brave law enforcement officials who brought them down.

Hady Amr is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and formerly served at the Department of State and at the Department of Homeland Security as a senior advisor. He tweets at @HadyAmr.