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3 things cops know about ‘lone wolves’ most people don’t

While the “lone wolf” threat may perplex some politicians, it’s an old and familiar story to street cops, who deal with solo attackers every day — they call them “criminals”


A spate of terror attacks by solo actors has sent politicians and the media into something of a frenzy about so-called “lone wolf” terrorists. The hysteria is building almost daily — nervous government officials wring their hands and struggle to devise a coherent strategy for dealing with this threat that they’re no longer able to ignore or cover up. 

For example, on October 26, Senator Dianne Feinstein said, “I believe the FBI is making every effort to stay on top of this lone-wolf phenomenon. I think the White House is cognizant of it and is working very hard to see that we have the ability to be able to find them and stop them.”

While the “lone wolf” threat may perplex some politicians, it’s an old and familiar story to street cops, who deal with solo attackers every day — they call them “criminals.” So, here are three truths about “lone wolves” that all street cops know.

1. Playing “whack-a-mole” is not a credible strategy.
It’s appealing to contemplate tracking down “Lone Wolves” and intercepting them before they strike, but this isn’t television. Jack Bauer may bring all the bad guys to justice inside of an hour each week, but in the real world it takes a massive amount of time, money, personnel and resources to do it. 

We certainly need a capability to “go hunting” — and need it to be part of our overall strategy — but identifying, locating, tracking, and intercepting individual lone wolf suspects before they can commit a crime or attack cannot be the cornerstone of a national defense strategy, as Senator Feinstein proposes. 

This is true for several reasons. First, ferreting out these self-contained, low-footprint, solo actors is incredibly difficult and it takes massive resources to accomplish. It’s usually a low return activity that places a significant drain on scarce resources. We’ve spent billions ,perhaps trillions, of dollars on things like the “risk-based” Air Marshal program and NSA eavesdropping, but none of it helped us to stop the Shoe Bomber, the NYPD hatchet attacker, the Fort Hood shooter, or the Oklahoma beheader — despite the evidence they left all over cyberspace indicating their propensity for violence in the name of Radical Islam. 

Why? Because it’s damned hard to find these straw-colored needles in haystacks. Even if we do single out one or two crazies from a huge population of crazies, how can we predict the What/When/Where/How? 

Cops are not mind readers.

Further, there are significant civil liberty issues at play. I won’t belabor the point, but the intense surveillance (such as the NSA eavesdropping) required to make this strategy work encourages abuses. Additionally, our legal system presupposes innocence and protects individual privacy and rights (thankfully), so there are legal complications associated with preemptive law enforcement action that make the strategy problematic. Orwell’s “thought police” are still fictional —so far.

Lastly, even if we’re successful in taking out a lone wolf before he/she strikes, there are dozens more that we’ll miss. Every time we kill a terrorist chief overseas, there are a handful of cockroaches ready to take his place. 

It’s the same way with criminals — every cop knows that for each offender he throws in jail, there are a hundred out there who haven’t been caught yet.

If tracking down likely offenders on an individual basis and stopping them before they committed their crimes was a viable solution, police departments would be made up almost exclusively of mind reading, detective-hunter teams and there would hardly be any patrol officers on the payroll. The fact that it’s not like that tells us that cops know something about deterring bad guys, within resource and legal constraints, that Senator Feinstein hasn’t figured out yet.

2. You can’t be everywhere.
Cops instinctively understand that you simply cannot be everywhere at once. When a criminal or “lone wolf” terrorist strikes, you’re not likely to find a cop within reach — that’s actually part of what made it a good target. A street cop knows that there will always be gaps in coverage, no matter how hard you try.

There are people in our government who don’t get this. They’re convinced that if they just add more airport screeners, or conduct more pat downs of the elderly and children, that they’ll find all the prohibited items and detect all the threats. It doesn’t work in jails, but somehow they think it will work in airports. For them, the answer is always “more” — we need more money, more personnel, more surveillance, and more powers.

Cops know it’s a losing game, because they’ve arrived “just a minute too late” way too many times to buy that. They know that every net is full of holes.

3. The real “first responders” are already on scene.
Cops understand that the first “first responder” on every scene is the public. 

In the critical moments during and after an attack, the public is on their own to defend, chase away, pursue, secure, save and rescue. Uniformed personnel will bring superior skills, training and equipment to the fight when they get there, but there will always be a delay.

As such, cops know and respect the value of an armed citizen in thwarting criminal violence. They know that crime drops in areas where citizens are armed, and spikes in areas where they are disarmed. They know that the best way to ensure the public is defended from aggressors, is to empower the public to defend themselves.

Instead of promoting concealed carry training and reform — such as national reciprocity for concealed carry licenses, like the one that Senator Feinstein  possesses — she has spent a career trying to disarm the public and turn them into helpless sheep, dependent upon their beneficent government for protection. 

That government is not likely to be on scene for the sheep at the very moment lone wolves strike. Trained and armed sheepdogs might be, but only if they’re given the legal authority and opportunity to do so.

Cops know that the best defense against a lone wolf is a trained and armed sheepdog, and we would all be a lot safer if our mainstream media and politicians used that as a starting point in their efforts to thwart these attacks.

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