Yesterday I was at the Downtown Core, the financial, commercial and cultural heart of Singapore. This was home to banks, shopping centres, hotels, areas of cultural interest. Five minutes from a major train station, I entered a convenience store and found a box cutter on sale for $2.50. A distant relative of the same box cutters used by nineteen men to hijack four planes and bring down the Two Towers.
For just $2.50 a terrorist could obtain a weapon and immediately run amok in one of the most crowded and significant places in Singapore.
In the wake of a terrorist attack or mass shooting, it is always tempting to push for more restrictions and bans. It creates the appearance that the government is Doing Something to prevent the next attack. If the bad guys can’t get their hands on weapons, they can’t pull off an attack, or so the narrative goes.
History laughs at that notion. Weapon bans only disarm law-abiding citizens. Terrorists and criminals feel no compunction to obey the law. 92% of mass shootings in America from 2009 to 2014 took place in so-called gun-free zones. In China, where firearms are strictly forbidden, Uigher terrorists used trucks and knives. Two weeks ago, in the United Kingdom, terrorists from the Islamic State copied that technique. France’s gun laws did not stop gunmen associated with Daesh from raiding Charlie Hebdo and massacring everyone around.
Demanding a weapon ban is like wearing a cross to ward off Hollywood vampires. If you have the cross, no vampire can touch you. Similarly, if you have a weapon ban, no more weapons will be used, or so the thinking goes. But the real world is not Hollywood. Enacting a weapons ban will not automatically make all weapons disappear from the jurisdiction; it will simply make more citizens criminals and temporarily inconvenience evildoers. Weapons are just tools, and tools are everywhere.
Even if a weapons ban is followed by mass confiscations and continuing inspections to ensure compliance with the law, it still won’t stop terrorist attacks. If a government bans guns, terrorists will turn to the black market (as in France) or knives (as in China). If a government bans knives, terrorists will ignore the law (as in the UK) or use tools like hammers, sharpened screwdrivers and other implements that are too useful to be banned. Explosives may be strictly controlled, but you don’t need military-grade explosives to build a suicide bomb or improvised explosive device. You just need a stable chemical compound that will explode on demand, and obtaining the right materials is simply a question of chemistry and social engineering. In the face of increasingly sophisticated counterterrorism solutions and complex legislature, terrorists turn to stealthy low-tech solutions.
Laws will not stop someone hell-bent on martyrdom. They will only take away the ability of the innocent and the just to defend themselves from aggression.
Terrorism is not a hardware problem. Terrorism is a software problem. It is driven not by weapons but by the contents of the human heart. Instead of banning hardware, civilizations around the world need to address the roots of terror.
Citizens should be allowed and encouraged to carry firearms. When an attack occurs, the first responders are the people around the attacker. If a nearby armed citizen intervenes in a shooting, one of three things tend to happen: the citizen stops the killer, the killer shoots himself, or the killer is delayed long enough for the police to respond. The ultimate result is that fewer innocent people get shot.
In America, lawfully-armed citizens have repeatedly prevented mass shootings in recent history. They never get the recognition they deserve because the body count is usually too low to be considered a mass shooting — so to the media, they do not count as mass shootings. Such citizens tend to be a self-selecting population who will seek out training and equipment of their own accord, and many American civilians are actually better shooters than the average police officer who only gets in official range time every few months.
When seconds count, the police are minutes away — and no number of phone calls can make them arrive faster. Arming citizens decentralises society’s defenses and empowers the people. Against a decentralised threat like terrorism, these citizens can respond quicker than the police, either buying time for everybody else or stopping the threat outright.
Ideology motivates terrorists, and when dealing with terrorist propaganda and preaching, I am in favor of strict measures. While I am normally leery of hate speech laws, speech that incites people to violence cannot be protected speech. It is weaponised intent and a declaration of war against society. Anybody who preaches violence against anyone for any reason should be investigated and, if necessary, arrested and detained.
The key standard is ‘violence’. It is not simply enough to say that he hates Jews, Muslims, Martians, or other victim group. That is a personal opinion and, no matter how repugnant, must be protected. If, however, someone preaches holy war against a group, he is encouraging others to aggression, and must be stopped. If someone teachers others how to conduct holy war, such as publishing explosives manuals or tradecraft, he is an enemy combatant and must be treated accordingly. Singapore has yet to experience a homegrown terrorist attack because individuals who spread terrorist propaganda or have been radicalised are decisively dealt with.
Detaining terrorists is not enough. Like criminals, if they are willing to be reformed and rehabilitated, they should be given a chance to do so. Rehabilitation is a cornerstone of Singapore’s counterterrorism strategy. Imams reach out to detained terrorists to confront their ideology and help them see the error of their ways. Successful rehabilitation dissolves ideological programming, defeating terrorism one heart at a time.