Opponents of the NRA’s call to better protect America’s schools have raised many of the same arguments that I heard as a diplomat serving in our embassies over thirty years ago.
At that time, it was still a commonly held belief among many of my colleagues that the special status of diplomatic missions combined with weapons free zones, the denial of weapons to terrorists, rapid police response, parking restrictions, and good intelligence would provide adequate protection. It was also generally agreed that American facilities in foreign countries should be open and welcoming places and that diplomats should not be armed.
A series of devastating attacks on our diplomatic missions forced a rethinking of many preconceived notions and security procedures are now designed to not only protect diplomatic missions and personnel but even more importantly to dissuade those who would do harm from attacking in the first place.
In the mid-1980s as part of my duties as Administrative Officer at the American Consulate General in Toronto, Canada, I was tasked with the role of post security officer (PSO).
At that time, Congress appropriated a large sum of money for physical security upgrades following a series of deadly attacks on American diplomatic missions. I questioned whether I should request funds for the upgrades given the fact that Toronto was relatively secure and that there were much higher threat posts elsewhere in the world.
When I consulted with security experts at the State Department in Washington, I was told that my job was to make my post so secure that anyone considering attacking it would look elsewhere, for example to the American Consulate in Montreal.
My colleague’s job in Montreal was to make his post strong enough so that those looking for a soft target would look at the Consulate in Quebec and the PSO’s job there was to make his post strong enough to force those seeking a soft target to give up on Canada and to go elsewhere.
I took his advice and we completed a number of physical security upgrades. Roughly a decade later, terrorist struck a number of our embassies in East Africa with devastating results because they were deemed to be “soft targets.” I lost a good friend in Nairobi.
Since then, American diplomatic facilities have been turned into virtual fortresses. However, terrorists continue to search for soft targets. When American targets are deemed to be too difficult to attack, terrorists go after softer targets such as United Nations facilities in Iraq, Algeria and Nigeria.
And when security breakdowns occur and American diplomatic missions are left vulnerable, our diplomatic personnel continue to be brutally murdered as clearly shown by the terrorist attack on the Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Today the points being raised by those who oppose stronger protection for schools are reminiscent of those raised nearly three decades ago during our discussions on how best to protect ourselves and the diplomatic facilities where we worked.
“Schools are special. Those wishing to do evil will respect our special status and won’t harm the innocent people inside.”
“Gun free zones will be honored and they will protect our children.”
“The key is to keep the weapons out of the hands of the bad guys.”
“We don’t want to work in a fortress environment where people carry guns.”
“If the bad guys can just be identified before they attack and prevented from acting, then we will all be safe”
Unfortunately, recent shootings in schools, malls, and theaters have confirmed what we learned years ago from the attacks on our diplomatic missions. People who want to cause mass casualties and to gain maximum publicity don’t play by the rules. They seek out the soft targets with lots of innocent victims because 1) they are generally cowards and/or have a death wish, 2) they want to ensure maximum success (carnage) and 3) they want to drive the news cycle for as many days in a row as possible.
It may or may not be a coincidence that all recent mass shootings took place in gun free zones but what is not a coincidence is that soft targets were chosen over hard targets and that signs prohibiting violence and assumptions that everyone would respect the law did not prevent the murderous actions.
American citizens now are being forced to ask themselves the same questions that we as diplomats were forced to address decades ago. Do we continue to do what we have always done or do we adapt to new realities? Can we stop evil doers by simply hoping that they will refrain from killing? Can we stop killings by denying those who would kill the means to do it? Or do we have to accept the fact that killers will keep on coming in spite of our best efforts and that we have to be ready to stop them on those occasions that they do get through?
Unless Americans are willing to repeal the Second Amendment, confiscate all firearms and to hermetically seal our borders in order to prevent the illicit importation and sell of firearms to those who would purchase them illegally for criminal use, then as diplomats learned over the years, steps have to be taken to address the situation that actually exists and to recognize that there are those out there who really do wish to kill innocent people. Living in the past and expecting today’s generation to live by the old rules is simply not adequate.
A true national dialogue is needed on violence but first, immediate steps must be taken to convince those who may be planning to do evil that schools are no longer soft targets. Guns in schools, like guns in embassies, may not be popular but like the terrorists, America’s mass killers may leave us no other choice.