Poor police response, not supposed softness towards terrorism, worsened Norway’s atrocity

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.

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

9 thoughts on “Poor police response, not supposed softness towards terrorism, worsened Norway’s atrocity”

  1. Sometime during the Kerry campaign, a smart person said, “Neocons want to fight terrorism. Liberals want to prevent it.”

    It’s much easier, and more politically expedient, for those on the right to rail against jihad than to actually advocate taking steps that make the world safer. Steps to make the world safer are difficult, expensive, government projects.

  2. Rubin is one of those right wing hacks who will use any event as a basis for asserting that we need to spend more on defense. Logic is not relevant. Regardless of the question the answer is “a bigger military”. Islam is just the bogeyman du jour to provide the fear on which to hang the demand.

  3. I’ve got nothing against police having SWAT training. I do wish, however, that they’d find an actual training location rather than training by breaking down the doors of people who may or may not have an ounce of pot and shooting their dogs.

  4. Pete Guither wrote, “I do wish, however, that they’d find an actual training location rather than training by breaking down the doors of people who may or may not have an ounce of pot and shooting their dogs.”

    Not sure you’re alluding to it or not, but that happened in one of the Wash DC suburbs recently. I had exactly the same thought reading the post above.

  5. I don’t think that there are many liberals opposed to SWAT squads. They are not needed very often, but they are needed at times, and should be available. But too many cops view SWAT tactics as normal policing, and too many courts let them get away with it.

  6. Just an observation regarding the police. While I don’t know enough of the specifics I do feel your critique appears somewhat premature.

    1 We are talking about a remote area, not the center of Stockholm, or New York. As such I would ask you if we go to a remote area in Alaska do you expect SWAT to arrive within five minutes?
    2 It was on an island, unlike the US Norway does not have an instant-ferry located at every island. As such, it is entirely possible that one is delayed while waiting for a boat to transport SWAT. From experience I can tell you ity is not uncommon to wait for a ferry to arrive (see my adventures in the Vega Archipelago: http://contusio-cordis.blogspot.com/2010/08/summer-in-norway-again.html ).


  7. Nescio is right. It really is too bad that no one has ever invented some kind of vertical take-off and landing aircraft that could carry half a dozen or a dozen armed officers, because then police departments might have access to them, or even own a bunch, strategically positioned to reach otherwise-inaccessible locations quickly.

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