Safety after Orlando: How far should we go?

Attack triggers another debate over guns, immigration.

The massacre in Orlando raised questions anew about how far Americans are willing to go to stop the next Omar Mateen.

Mateen carried out the most lethal mass shooting in modern American history last Sunday when he mowed down 49 people and injured another 53 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

As the country mourns the dead, the conversation has quickly turned once again to guns and terrorism and what should done to prevent mass shootings.

Some want tougher gun laws. Some, like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, want a ban on certain immigrants. Some want increased surveillance on Muslims.

James McDaniel of Tipp City, who conducted counter-terrorism missions and training for 26 years in the U.S. Army Special Forces, said keeping the country secure while maintaining citizens’ rights is a delicate balancing act, especially when trying to root out a lone wolf already in the country who has been radicalized and inspired over the internet.

“A lot of people may not want to admit it but they’re here. They’re here now,” McDaniel said. “The government needs to have the ability to locate, disrupt and find these individuals. That may step on the toes of some of our personal liberties but when I read the Constitution, the first thing it says is the primary responsibility of government is to protect its citizens.”

McDaniel said he has been fighting terror before there was a “War on Terror.” He was injured in the April 1983 bombing that brought down the front of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63, including 17 Americans.

He had the grisly task of collecting body parts after the suicide bomber in a delivery van packed with explosives ushered in what’s now recognized as the first attack against America by an Islamist group.

McDaniel said if Americans want more security they must be willing to put in place — and pay for – a system like Israel’s, which is considered among the world’s best counter-terrorism operations.

“We need to take up the Israeli model, profiling actions instead of searching 90-year-old women,” McDaniel said. “We’ve been spoiled because we’re protected by two oceans. Those aren’t as effective as they used to be.”

Homegrown threats

In the wake of the Orlando shooting, the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a new bulletin Wednesday urging increased public vigilance to the threat “homegrown violent extremists who could strike with little or no notice.” In a change from a December bulletin, DHS added “sexual orientation” to identify people or communities that terrorists might target. Threats and violence could also be directed at others based on perceived religion, ethnicity and nationality, according to the department.

“It’s never going to be 100 percent safe all the time because we live in a free society. But there are things we can do to help with the security. And the number one thing is public participation. Reporting things they know are about to happen,” said Richard L. Zwayer II, Ohio Homeland Security executive director. He said the division gets tips “on a daily and weekly basis,” but would not discuss investigations.

In a Thursday briefing to Congress, Central Intelligence Agency Director John O. Brennan said the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) is training and attempting to deploy operatives for further attacks, “and as we’ve seen in Orlando, San Bernardino, and elsewhere, ISIL is attempting to inspire attacks by sympathizers who have no direct links to the group.”

Reignited gun debate

The 9/11 attacks were a monumental tipping point in how the U.S. government keeps watch over both citizens and foreigners. Those who study privacy rights don’t anticipate the Orlando tragedy to drastically alter current government surveillance practices or privacy laws any time soon. But the tragedy dominated the presidential race and Ohio’s U.S. Senate race last week, reigniting the debates about immigration and how to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists.

“If anything it’s going to be a tipping point on the gun side,” said Vaughn Shannon, associate professor of political science at Wright State University. “I think people are ready for the fight.”

On Wednesday, Donald Trump tweeted that he planned to meet with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and ask the pro-gun lobby endorsing him to switch its position and support barring guns to those on the terrorist watch list. The NRA followed with a statement saying it’s happy to meet with Trump but that its position remains unchanged. The organization says its opposition stems from the lack of due process afforded those on the watch list and those wrongly placed on the list.

Federal data show that 91 percent of those on the terror watch list get approved to purchase firearms following a background check. Since 2004 when the National Instant Criminal Background Check System was instituted, 2,265 people on the watch list have passed the check.

“The NRA is famously good at blocking stuff,” Shannon said. “But when you see words that terrorists are allowed to get guns to kill Americans, I think that’s becoming a less tenable argument for Second Amendment absolutists to make.”

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, supports the terror watch list ban and urged Congress to quickly pass legislation.

The issue provoked a dustup in Ohio’s U.S. Senate race last week as well between the incumbent Republican Sen. Rob Portman and Democratic challenger former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. Portman, who voted six months ago against a bill that would ban those on the terrorist list from purchasing firearms, said Tuesday he supports a ban.

Late last week the leaders of both parties were negotiating proposals that together would require background checks for those purchasing firearms online and at guns shows and block suspected terrorists from purchasing guns. Voting could take place as early as Monday.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., took to the Senate floor for nearly 15 hours beginning on Wednesday to pressure votes on the gun control measures.

As a member of the House in 2012, Murphy represented Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six adults were shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“For those of us that represent Connecticut, the failure of this body to do anything at all in the face of that continued slaughter isn’t just painful to us, it’s unconscionable,” Murphy said during his filibuster.

Time will tell

Thaddeus Hoffmeister, a University of Dayton law professor, doesn’t expect much change in the area of gun control.

“I think the fact that a person can just walk into a kindergarten class and just shoot up kindergarten students and that didn’t change the hearts and minds of people, I don’t know what will, honestly,” he said. “Now the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States? Honestly, I don’t know if that’s going to make a difference with gun laws.”

Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said it’s too soon to tell whether the rejuvenated gun debate will be much of a factor when voters go to the polls in November.

“There are so many variables that go into a presidential race, it’s oftentimes hard to look at one particular thing and say this, this right here, is what changed this,” he said. “With the two major parties you’ve got two candidates, a third-party candidate potentially could impact the race. Between now and November is an awfully long time, any number of things could happen.”

‘We cannot rest’

Though the Orlando gunman pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, the vast majority of mass shootings in America are not tied to radical Islam. Two 2015 mass shootings carried out by radicalized Muslims in Chattanooga, Tenn., and San Bernardino, Calif., are still raw in the country’s mind.

And the memory of 9/11, plotted by al-Qaeda, has never faded, said Zwayer, the Ohio Homeland Security executive director.

“Although those events aren’t forgotten, the reminder that these events, or these attacks, or the planning for these types of attacks is ongoing, and we can’t let our guard down and we cannot rest in the public safety arena until we know that that tide against America has changed to some degree,” Zwayer said. “And Orlando is another reminder that there are individuals in the radical Muslim community — overseas and on American soil — who have it in their mind that they want to do harm to Americans.”

Excluding 9/11, only 0.5 percent of all terrorism deaths between 2000-2014 occurred in Western countries, according to a 2015 global terrorism report issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace. The majority of attacks on the West were not carried out by well-organized groups or Islamic extremists. Seventy percent were by lone wolves without any outside help and 80 percent of those were attributed to right wing extremists, nationalists, anti-government elements, supremacism or other political extremism.

Moving forward

Most Americans have accepted the increased airport security measures and privacy intrusions that came with legislation such as the Patriot Act following 9/11, Wright State’s Shannon said.

“Americans have been largely tolerant of a little extra surveillance,” he said. “There hasn’t been a massive backlash against that.”

The greater concern some have following Orlando is the potential implementation of discriminatory policies toward minorities — and specifically Muslims — by government, said Shannon.

“Would mainstream white, protestant America tolerate a police state around Muslims?” he said. “I’d like to think we’ve evolved past policies of persecuting minorities in the name of the actions of a few minus any evidence that there’s a reason to be concerned about a community as a whole. Japanese interment was usually seen as a morally bankrupt, overblown response in wartime that justified reparations. I can’t imagine something similar.”

Daniels said painting entire ethnic or religious groups with too broad a brush makes it more difficult to identify those planning to do harm.

“The basic challenge looking for terrorists, looking for the bad guys, looking for whomever, is it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” he said. “And if all you’re doing is making the haystack bigger then you’re going to have an even harder time finding those people and determining who are the bad guys and who are not.”

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