Juliette Kayyem: Facts are facts and this much we know after the Las Vegas tragedy: In America, access to weapons of mass destruction elicits terror too frequently
We need to focus less on the motive and more on the means and make it harder to obtain firearms capable of killing so many people at once, she writes
Editor’s Note: CNN analyst Juliette Kayyem is the author of the best-seller, “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 the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, host of the national security podcast, “The SCIF,” and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
The mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night – now the single most deadly shooting in modern US history, with 58 dead and over 500 hurt – is, no matter what the motivation of the shooter, a form of terror against us. This is not a legal or political position, it is purely a matter of psychological impact.
Stephen Paddock, 64, who allegedly fired hundreds of rounds into the crowd below his hotel room, apparently had every intent of unleashing terror on those who were, up until those last moments, enjoying a Jason Aldean concert.
The usual plea by government officials is that we wait for more assessment or analysis of what happened before talking about terrorism. In truth, the only analysis appropriate right now is the one that reminds all of us that here we are again. Facts are facts and this much we know: In America, access to weapons of mass destruction elicits terror too frequently. We now need to rethink crimes to reflect the substance of the conduct, rather than just the motivation.
Security is about both minimizing risks and maximizing defenses. Soft targets will always be soft. We can try to make them “harder,” but even though we have minimized some of the threats to concert arenas by installing metal detectors or implementing pat-downs or showing a greater focus on the use of cars to kill people in crowds, an elevated shooter from a nearby hotel makes all of that effort moot.
I do not say this to be fatalistic, but as a reminder that we have spent considerable time buttressing our defenses and very little effort on minimizing other risks, mainly the risk of massive gun violence.
That’s the common thread in cases like these: access to weapons of mass casualty. Because the alleged shooter, as far as authorities are saying so far, likely has no known ties to a foreign group, we might think this isn’t “terrorism” as we understand it.
As a result, we might not consider the range of options that would apply in any strategy meant to minimize the risks of terror. To minimize this sort of attack, we need to do two things: change how we classify mass casualty crimes to focus less on the motive and more on the means, and, overall, make it harder to obtain firearms capable of killing so many people at once.
Our national security policy should focus on making it harder for terrorists to arm themselves – doing so increases the likelihood that attacks of all kinds might be thwarted or exposed. This shooter terrorized, period. In what is sure to be ongoing investigations into what triggered him – as if something as evil as this can ever be fully explained – we risk minimizing the critical facet of his motivation: that he had access to weaponry that could kill this many people so quickly.
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For political and legal reasons, we have separated the motivation debate from the capability and access debate for too long. Mental derangement and a form of terrorism are not mutually exclusive. Paddock’s alleged actions are no less terrorizing than those of a “terrorist,” and likely more so when simply looking at the casualty count.
There are now dozens more grieving families who would likely agree.