Why do we downplay this terror issue?

Story highlights

  • 49 people were killed and more than 50 injured in a shooting in Orlando
  • Juliette Kayyem: Investigation into motivation should not preclude addressing means

CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-selling "Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home." She is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)It's hard to find something positive to hold onto when a tragedy as awful as the Orlando shooting strikes. After all, Sunday's attack claimed the lives of 49 people, while leaving more than 50 more hurt, making it the worst terrorist attack in the United States since September 11, 2001.

But in the aftermath of the horror of Orlando, just as was the case with the San Bernardino shootings last year, one thing is clear: There are actually only a limited number of ways to stop terrorism, or indeed, any mass violence motivated by a warped ideology.
Juliette Kayyem
On the surface, that might not sound like a positive -- a limited number of options for preventing attacks must be a bad thing, right? Actually, no -- not when one of those options is so crystal clear. And, in principle, so achievable.
    The reality is that counterterrorism efforts can essentially have two focal points, each with their own specific policies and approaches. Just two. In practice, that means we as a nation can focus our efforts either on what motivates people to cause violence, or we can try to affect the means by which they are able to commit such violence.
    In a world where counterterrorism efforts are constantly dissected in the media and online, almost every policy that is voiced in the public arena, whether it is good or bad -- from making extremism less appealing, to making watch lists more vigorous, to talk of banning all Muslims coming to America -- can be placed into one of those two categories: motivation or means.
    In the wake of Orlando, there has been plenty of attention paid to the former. But in doing so, policymakers and much of the media might be missing an opportunity -- and some low-hanging fruit in the effort to keep Americans safer.
    Right now, we are spending a great deal of time trying to understand what motivated Omar Mateen, just as we do for any other terrorist. Initially, he seemed to have given a very clear indication of his motivation Sunday night, when he called a 911 dispatcher to pledge his allegiance to ISIS.
    But his reference to the Boston Marathon bombers, who were influenced by al Qaeda, suggests he didn't have a clear understanding of the distinctions between the groups. And Mateen's choice of a target -- an LGBT bar -- and subsequent speculation that he may actually have been gay suggest that his motives were mixed.
    All this underscores the fact that we need to abandon the notion that there is a lightbulb moment in the aftermath of these tragedies that will help us discern a person's motives. The search for the answer is understandable and necessary, but the reality is that it can be difficult to fully relate to a capacity of mass violence, and so the search for neat answers is often futile.
    Indeed, the narratives we create for ourselves in these cases, especially in the early part of the investigation -- he's a terrorist! He followed ISIS! -- may or may not be true. And the focus on this search can sometimes make us forget there is another side to our counterterrorism efforts.
    Of course, we should commit resources to countering violent extremism and addressing mental health issues. But why do we so often seem to stop there?
    If I told you that some dangerous new device was being used by ideologues to kill tens of thousands of Americans, we would naturally move to regulate that device -- and access to it. But change that one word -- device -- to weapon, throw in an absolutist notion of the Second Amendment, and mix it with a lot of lobbying by the National Rifle Association, and the debate changes. Automatically.
    President Barack Obama, who spoke of sensible gun control in response to Orlando, urged the nation to recognize that asking how such carnage can be wrought is as important a question to ask as wanting to know why it happened.
    He's right.
    When putting together any counterterrorism policy, there are bound to be disagreements over the distribution of resources we should commit to addressing motive and means. Some might decide we should put more resources into figuring out how to predict bad behavior by committing to programs that help us better understand the human psyche, or which are focused on countering the appeal of violent extremism. But no sound strategy should abandon an entire option, let alone dismiss talking about it as too political.
    And yet time and again, that is exactly what we do when there is a tragedy like this past weekend's. There is plenty of speculation about what motivated Mateen, why he decided to take so many lives. But we should not let the journey in search of an answer distract us from addressing something that is staring us right in the face: the means for taking so many lives.
      Ultimately, our inability to focus on the means of stopping these atrocities has little to do with the murkiness of the terrorists' motives -- and everything to do with the choices we keep making.