Poor Police Response, Not Softness Towards Terrorism, Worsened Norway’s Atrocity

Over at CAP, Eric Alterman has been excoriating conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin for her misguided initial columns about Norway. I’m not familiar with Rubin, but I clicked onto her Washington Post blog to see what the fuss was about. Eric is right that she rushed to judgment in blaming Islamic jihadists, and that she was too slow to correct an erroneous column.

I’m drawn to a more interesting point noted in Eric’s column. Rubin’s arguments about this atrocity don’t make sense, even on its own terms. Her arguments wouldn’t have been very sensible, even if the killer really had been a jihadi terrorist, rather than the right-wing terrorist he actually was….

She writes:

This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists. I spoke to Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, who has been critical of proposed cuts in defense and of President Obama’s Afghanistan withdrawal plan. “There has been a lot of talk over the past few months on how we’ve got al-Qaeda on the run and, compared with what it once was, it’s become a rump organization. But as the attack in Oslo reminds us, there are plenty of al-Qaeda allies still operating….

The last reminder is embarrassingly mistaken. Yet the mistakes go beyond what obviously requires factual correction. Rubin adds in a follow-up column:

As to the horror in Norway, once again we are reminded how vulnerable free and open societies are. We are reminded that the best security system is not airtight. And, we are reminded that the first obligation of government is to protect its citizenry.

That the suspect here is a blond Norwegian does not support the proposition that we can rest easy with regard to the panoply of threats we face or that homeland security, intelligence and traditional military can be pruned back. To the contrary, the world remains very dangerous because very bad people will do horrendous things.

The atrocity certainly did not demonstrate that “the best security system is not airtight.”

Republicans chide Democrats for an alleged belief that terrorism is a law enforcement rather than a military problem. Yet in Norway, vanilla ice cream police failures cost many lives. Police responded extremely badly to the attack. They took far too long to reach the scene. They failed to have the proper people, procedures, or equipment in-place to rapidly confront one very bad person doing a horrendous thing—a lone gunman who surrendered without struggle once they reached the scene.

In an era of mass shootings in Mumbai, but also at Virginia Tech and many other places, that’s inexcusable. Fixing such basic failures of modern policing is more immediately important for counter-terrorism than anything we might to procure additional fighter aircraft or to wage the war in Afghanistan–however important such spending may be for other reasons.

Rubin’s knee-jerk response highlights a failure in much conservative rhetoric on terrorism. It’s easy to argue from 50,000 feet about the global threat of Islamo-fascism, to claim that liberals somehow don’t understand that bad people do bad things, and so on. Yet conservative politicians and their allies seem conspicuously less focused on the actual blocking and tackling of successful counter-terrorism.

There may be some liberal, maybe someplace in the blogosphere, who opposes police SWAT training, who opposes buying required equipment to stop mass homicides, who opposes efforts to hire proficient FBI linguists, who opposes efforts to safeguard our ports, power grid, and chemical plants. I have never spotted that liberal. I have, on the other hand, spotted House Republicans who propose to cut programs that fight nuclear terrorism, who drag their feet on efforts to get a better handle on who purchases powerful weaponry, who appoint heck-of-a-job people to critical agencies concerned with homeland security missions.

There is a craft to public management—in police work no less than other things. It must be done well, or lives will be lost.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.