Thursday, January 15, 2015

Insight: How The Day I Almost Shot Someone Is Shaping Me As A Security Practitioner

Trucks go through the Mobile Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System at Camp Navistar, Kuwait. (Source: US Army)

What I’m about to write is something I share no glory writing. In fact, what I’m about to tell you is something few people have heard me tell and no one until now understands why it’s such an important experience in my life.

Let me begin by going over briefly my military background up until this experience. I joined the Air Force in 2000 and enlisted in a category known as “open general”. I qualified for any job I wanted but I only desired to be a fireman. Unfortunately, I wasn’t picked for that assignment. I was selected for a career-field in the Air Force known as Security Forces (SF). Basically, I was the classic military policeman in my early years – I checked IDs at the gate, responded to various law enforcement calls for service, emergency response, base security, etc. In 2002, I was deployed to Kuwait for the first time. It was an interesting and perilous time to be there. We’d been deployed to provide air base defense, in case the Iraqis wanted to start the war before we did. Essentially, I protected planes, pilots, and maintainers so our aircraft could kill Sadaam and his men. Pretty cool, huh? Not really. It was boring with some excitement in between. However, my second deployment was somewhat more perilous not because of Sadaam but from insurgents in Iraq and is the setting of the experience I want to talk about.

In most cases, when I deployed in SF, I and the folks I was with were euphemistically called “REMFs”. Pardon the crassness of the translation – rear echelon moth-*insert bad words*. In other words, while everyone else fought the war in Iraq, my unit was in the relative safety of the “rear”. We were trained to expect bad guys at every turn but the sad reality is very few times did the bad guys show up to engage us.

On this second deployment, our mission was somewhat ambiguous. We’d deployed to support air base defense missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom in whatever way the Air Force saw fit. If you know military deployments, you know what that means – no one knew what to do with us and so we were wrought to be abused and we were. One assignment we were given was to inspect vehicles coming into and out of Kuwait and Iraq on the Kuwaiti side of the border.

One fateful day, my lieutenant grabbed a group of us and ordered us to help a returning Army convoy get through a Kuwaiti roadway. We were each placed at various intersections, mostly by ourselves. Yeah. I know. Translation: we were armed crossing guards for big trucks coming home after being blown up. The job sucked as much as it sounds. As I stood in the middle of a Kuwaiti road contemplating what I had done to deserve this ungodly punishment, an Army officer came to my position and shouted “Make sure NO ONE comes through this area. NO ONE! Have you done this before?” I answered “Not quite.” I was lying. I had never stood in the middle of a road in another country to protect a bunch of trucks from getting T-boned by vehicles they could have run over and not have noticed. He shouted back, “Look, if you see a car, start putting your hand in the air and shouting for them to stop. By the way, hold your fingers pursed together and shout (insert Arabic word for “stop”).” Sounds like a plan. I do what he says and the cars will stop. Yeah. Not quite.

An hour passed and no vehicles. As soon as I grabbed my radio to check on the status of the convoy, I saw it – a vehicle I’ll never forget for as long as I live. It was a brown Mercedes S-class sedan. It was a few hundred feet away. I immediately put my hands in the air and demanded the vehicle stop. I shout and it keeps coming. I do the thing the officer told me and still it won’t stop. The distance closes by the second. Time seems to be creeping slower as nervousness sets in. What do I do if he won’t stop? The other guys are God-knows-where and my battery is about dead.Every cop in the world has been trained to recognize the car as a lethal weapon when it’s coming at you with no apparent attempt to stop. At some point, I realize the M-4 I’m carrying needs to come up and pointed towards the vehicle. Remember, this takes seconds. I pull the charging handle and let the round chamber to make the weapon ready to fire. I scream, “Stop! STOP! STOP!” The vehicle stops five feet from me. I’m huffing and puffing. I hear the ebb of trucks – the convoy has just gone passed. The tunnel vision I had at the onset left and there I was eyeball-to-eyeball with the vehicle and its occupants – a family. I don’t know if it was language, culture, or poor vision but for whatever I reason I hesitated and saved a family’s life and the convoy, in some weird way.

Here’s where it gets awkward. Over the years since then, few days go by where I don’t think about that family. I can see the husband, his wife, and children. I can see the frightened looks of the children. I remember the kafiyeh the husband wore and the piercing glance his wife gave him from her hijab as he suddenly stopped. I can hear the tires squeal. I remember the aroma of the diesel trucks as they passed me by. Most importantly, I remember my hesitation. I could have killed them. Why did I hesitate? When it matters will hesitate or react? Am I the warrior I always envisioned I’d be? Some days, these things are easier to answer than others.
Since that incident, several years later, I went on another deployment as a REMF and served two tours in Korea. I also worked as an armed community based security patrol officer in some of Tampa’s worst housing areas. Each job I’ve had since that day, I’ve encountered situations where that day was in the back of my mind. Admittedly, I’ve never had to raise my weapon in anger since then.
So here’s what I’ve learned since then and how I think my experience can help others in security:
  1. No matter the gig, you should ALWAYS expect the bad guy to show up. It never fails. You’re told the job is easy. The threat is nonexistent. You feel safe. Then, BAM! The bad guy shows up. What do you do? Do you hesitate to respond? It’s not an easy question to answer but one you need to ask yourself daily. Don’t worry. You know the answer. We all do.
  2. Have confidence in your ability to defeat the bad guy. During this deployment, many of us had derided the training we’d received to prepare for this deployment. None of us felt like we could do much against the bad guys with the training being as ambiguous as the training and the rules of engagement being equally confusing. Believe it or not, the psychology behind self-induced confusion and “fog of war” diminishes a great deal of confidence. Whatever you do to get ready for these situations, make sure it’s not only effective at mitigation through mechanics but gives you the confidence needed to make difficult decisions in a variety of scenarios.
  3. Just because you don’t fire a gun in combat doesn’t mean there aren’t decisions you won’t wrestle with. Seriously, I didn’t kill anyone but the idea that I could have killed an “innocent” has followed me throughout my life. It doesn’t make me some sort of “seasoned vet” or anything. However, the questions I asked immediately afterwards, still remain.
  4. There’s nothing wrong with hesitating when you can. Had I not waited, I could have killed that family or at the very least, created a major issue for everyone. Remember, Kuwait was an ally. I’d be lying if I told you I was thinking of the alliance. Sometimes, in security, we respond to situations not based on what we see or hear but what our rules of engagement allow us to get away with in the situation. I could have done far more damage, had I dealt with this differently. Don’t take too long to make up your mind but make sure you’re decisive and situationally aware.
I admit I could have done a lot of things differently that day. I could have insisted on better ROEs. I could have asked for another person to be with me. I could have made up my mind earlier what my “red line” was going to be. None of this would have meant I would have shot anyone but I can’t help but think I should have reacted sooner and more decisively. But you know what? The simple truth is – I did everything right.

Monday, January 5, 2015

OPINION: The Impact of Bias & Politics In Security

Originally, I wanted to make this an “open letter” to my fellow Americans about the current state of security. I was going to lecture us for engaging in pointless arguments and conjecture regarding where to place the blame for our security failings and who deserved credit for our success. However, this will not be an “open letter”, though; I will address these issues in this post. That’s right. I’m probably going to offend a few of you. Stick around because you’ll soon discover I’ll offend someone you don’t like. So let’s begin.

There seems to be an incessant desire to inject our personal political beliefs into how we view security. This used to occur only in the domain of national security. Here it was more acceptable, expected, and understandable than in others. In 2014, we saw a dramatic shift in this paradigm. The injection of politics has occurred throughout the spectra of security. Hacks on corporations have occurred in the name of political differences and responsibility assigned (accurately or inaccurately) based on them as well. Even areas thought immune to politics such as personnel security saw this as well. Discourse diluted to regurgitation of talking points. Experts emerged with little to any relative experience or extensive security knowledge but gained popularity because of which side they seemed to agree with. Accusations were cast as fact with little to corroborate them other than innuendo and insinuation from less-than-objective sources.

Today, the discussions of security have become little more than massive pep rallies and virtual lynch mobs. As professionals and practitioners, we rely on credible and objective evidence-based analysis to make informed decisions for our clients. Yet, the current discourse has been infected with vitriol and far-from-honest portrayals. In order to correct our course, we must examine what is occurring and how we can change.
  1. What happened to having conversations? This is a question I find myself posing quite a bit on social media these days. The dialogues people are having with one another about things in security have been destructive, short on content, and full of conjecture. Twitter is the perfect place to watch this devolution. People shout and angrily dismiss opinions they don’t agree with, in an effort to assert expertise rather than collaborative learning. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers and so I use Twitter and other mediums as a means of learning more. Yet, so many people don’t want to learn. They’d rather spend their time proving you wrong rather than hearing your perspective. In certain cases, I get this. Some ideas are flatly wrong or just an attempt to “troll”. Therein lays our greatest weapon in bringing back sound intellectual discourse – choice. We can always choose to ignore opinions that are not in the interests of learning and sharing knowledge. Yet, we don’t but we need to.
  2. We seem to like to state our bias but pretend as though it doesn’t matter. Facts are facts but our bias has a great deal of influence on our analysis of those facts. The worse offense we make is allowing our bias to form our opinions. On social media, I have seen a great many of profiles with biographies full of stated or implied bias. Not surprisingly, I find many of these accounts and their timelines to be absent of manipulated or inaccurate facts and vitriolic opinions. When challenged, these accounts retort how much they don’t care that influences them, how the “other side” does it too, and how the challenger’s facts are wrong or formed from the “mainstream media”. Miraculously, these accounts don’t see how this very analysis is influenced by theirs.We all have a bias. We can’t escape it nor should we. That being said, it is incumbent upon us to realize our bias and understand how it influences our analysis and our subsequent opinions. For example, if you don’t know anyone who owns a firearm and never touched a gun before but hold very anti-gun opinions after a friend was shot, it may be prudent to understand how your lack of exposure and the tragic event of losing a friend could have an impact on your opinions about guns. This doesn’t mean you’re wrong but it certainly pays dividends to understand.
  3. The labels we give people have a tremendous impact on the level of discourse and engagement we seek to have. Come on. Let’s not pretend we don’t know what RWNJ (right wing nutjob), Libtard, Democraps, SJW (social justice warrior), gun nut, thug, un-patriotic, Obummer, and others mean. These are the “nice” labels. Have you ever had someone call you “stupid” after you articulate a point and thought you were going to be taken seriously? Have you ever called someone “stupid” after they made their initial point and expected them to take your argument seriously? No. That’s not how constructive discourse works. We use these labels in order to dismiss people’s arguments because we either fear taking them seriously or we don’t want to listen to them. In some cases, I get this. I do. I get trolled at times and I find it easy (though I resist) to troll back.

    If we’re truly interested in having meaningful discussions and want people to take us and our ideas seriously, perhaps we should drop the labels. Our forefathers often engaged in heated debates with another about various topics. However, they recognized their greatest vulnerability rested in their greatest weapon – their ability to compromise. Consensus and commitment can’t occur when you’re busy tearing people (instead of their bad arguments) down. By tearing down our neighbors, our enemies find new allies to defeat us. If there is one lesson we’ve learned this year, it’s that the insider can have the greatest impact.
  4. Stop using tragedy to assert your political commentary. There are few things that rub me wrong than this. I have been on Twitter for little over three years and in that time; I have witnessed countless tragedies as they were happening. With each crisis, there are new experts vying for their voice to be heard among the ever-growing field. During the initial days of the Ferguson riots, I was called upon to give my opinions. It was an experience I will never forget and it gave me valuable insight into how politics with its own agenda shapes much of the dialogue in security. Good or bad, there are a host of issues which impact security and law enforcement which wouldn’t drive as much discussion if it were not for politics.
    That being said, I find a great many of “experts” use social media and the settings of tragic events as platforms to inject their personal political allegiance and ambitions in to their “objective” analysis of security issues. Nowhere has this been more apparent and to our detriment than in the recent spate of officer-involved-shootings. There are a host of instances where “experts” have used incomplete, manufactured, outdated, or demonstrative data from corollary events in an effort to support their biased and politically-based opinions. Nowhere but in our current media paradigm do we see and accept this so blindly.
  5. In a world where events don’t matter unless they “go viral” or cause our clients embarrassment, it is strange how we ignore the impact this has on both how information is given and received and why. Even stranger is how we ignore how that happens. Today, you can’t visit a news story and not see a button to like or share the content with others. News organizations no longer make their money off of consumers but advertisers. Ads are custom-delivered to us based on our reactions to various news articles. Many times, we don’t see a story unless it’s “trending”. So if we’re only seeing things based on our reactions to them and it’s solely crafted in its current form to create an emotional response, then why ignore the influence this has on our discussions about these stories?
Perhaps, when we care more about how we receive and present information, we’ll make more informed decisions regarding the issues surrounding our industry. We may even see a high-return in a public that takes us more seriously and understands the mental acuity required to understand the threat, our risks, and vulnerabilities. When we get back to having meaningful and constructive discourse founded on information meant to inform and not persuade, we’ll do more than prattle about who should be our political party of choice.

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