Chattanooga shootings: Why were our soldiers so vulnerable?

Editor’s Note: Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst, is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She is also the host of the Security Mom podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Story highlights

Marines, expert at weaponry, were victims of the Chattanooga shootings

Kayyem: How can we better protect armed forces on U.S. soil?

CNN  — 

Four Marines, heavily trained and masters in the art of weaponry, were killed by a lone gunman in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Investigators are now searching Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez’s history, social media presence, and foreign travel to unearth any clues about his motivation. Were hints missed?

But it would be unfortunate to only focus on the assailant. The other, perhaps as significant, story coming out of this tragedy is the question of why were our soldiers so vulnerable here on domestic soil.

Juliette Kayyem

It defies an understanding of the military in the U.S. and the traditions of recruitment centers and other military-related sites to say simply that we need to arm our soldiers here in the United States. Military recruitment centers are “gun-free” because they are intended to be welcoming for those considering a career in the armed forces.

The military has always struck a balance, based on the fact we have civilian control over our forces and between force and integrating the military into our civic institutions. The military is part of our community and to treat them as armed combatants at all times is a fundamental shift in the military’s efforts to integrate and work with communities.

The reality is that our soldiers, like law enforcement, will always be targets. And, even if we were to fortify recruitment centers, creative killers will always find other soft targets. It is the nature of our society. The military is so appealing to terrorists because it represents a U.S. institution of both force and peace. But the solution isn’t as simple as deciding that we must arm our soldiers at all times even when they are in the U.S.

The entrance to the military recruiting office off Lee Highway in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is seen riddled with bullet holes.

The magnitude of such a change is profound, and the likelihood for some sort of error too great. Our laws are based around the notion that the military is not an armed entity on U.S. soil unless in times of insurrection or when civic institutions are unable to address a crisis. Every state and city has police for that function, and failing that, would then turn to the National Guard troops, first under the direction of the state’s governor.

There will need to be a reassessment of what is commonly referred to in wartime settings as “force protection.” How can we make our soldiers less vulnerable to harm when they are in a soft-target mode? How can the Pentagon buttress security efforts at those sites? That will require creative thinking and resources by the military.

But to say that the response to this tragedy is to arm our military on domestic soil is simplistic and ahistorical. It is not even clear the Pentagon would favor this. Instead, we need to focus on the balance between force protection and the fear of looking like an occupying force. Being armed, in some instances, may be the appropriate response but it isn’t the only one.

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