A quick scan of the headlines will confirm that in the US (and elsewhere) things are getting ugly. We’ve had violence across the US before, most notably the race riots and anti-war protests in the 1960’s. Risk Managers, Business Continuity planners and Security personnel take note: this climate will impact your business.
With respect, I disagree: 2017 (and the next couple of years) have the potential to be severely risky to businesses, infrastructure and people. These risks have a direct impact on your organizations. The heightened risk comes from the four T’s: Timing, Tactics, Technology and Tolerance.
Today’s social and political climate is more polarized and toxic than the 1960’s. The Vietnam War was unpopular to be sure, but in 1966 almost half of the American public supported it, another quarter had no opinion, and only a quarter opposed it, according to Gallup – with a subset of that population being violently opposed. Today, nobody is on the sidelines: half are supportive of the President, civil order, law enforcement/the police, etc., half are opposed – and a larger subset are virulently opposed. Black Lives Matter, “The Resistance”, the ‘Antifa’ movement and other unofficial violence-prone organizations are attracting acolytes and supporters by the millions.
Today’s social climate is also becoming more poisonous. John F. Kennedy’s election win in 1960 was narrower than Donald Trump’s (and arguably just as divisive), yet the nation was united in its revulsion and outrage at his assassination in 1963. Never in recent history have we seen so many people, including public figures and celebrities, publicly and glibly calling for a President’s assassination. If this were to happen, there would be dancing in the streets in America’s larger cities. In the 60’s, a college student sporting an American Flag hat or military T-shirt on campus might get some dirty looks or an isolated confrontation. Try wearing a Make America Great hat on today’s campus and you could get hospitalized.
We also have the added dimension of Islamic extremist terror that did not exist in the 60’s.
The other issue today is that violence is much likelier to be spontaneous, impulsive and rapid. The riots and college takeovers in the 60’s were premeditated and protracted. Today, protests happen in a flash and turn ugly just as quickly. Why? This leads to the second reason: tactics have changed.
The 60’s followed a playbook standard at the time for protests and college takeovers. Phone calls, mail and public or semi-public events to organize, recruiting for numbers and shock troops, and fairly primitive (but effective) operations. Riots would start and build with a cadence slow by today’s standards. There was also a concreteness and organization to them: The Weather Underground, Students for a Democratic Society and other dissident groups had members and meetings. Today’s violence, whether it’s disrupting speakers at university campuses, protesting a police shooting, attempted assassination of politicians or a political protest-cum-riot, have a different anatomy to them. Today’s dissidents are more amorphous and intangible: the Antifa movement does not maintain a membership list or collect dues.
The tactics are more sophisticated and more effective. Today’s perpetrators employ black-bloc tactics (synchronized choreographed attacks and dressing alike wearing masks to escape identification) and flash-mobbing (organizing in real time for instantaneous attack and dispersal with mass numbers) which are difficult to mitigate and counter. The 60’s protest weapons of choice were bricks and Molotov cocktails. The London rioters’ weapons of choice were ammonia bulbs, smoke bombs and other sophisticated methods.
Terrorists have also refined their tactics. Knives and cars have been around for a long time, but only recently have they become the terrorists’ weapons of choice. Attacks like 9/11 require skill, planning and resources, and are almost impossible to replicate today. Attacks like San Bernadino and Pulse Orlando require lesser skills, planning and resources, and are difficult but doable. Attacks like Ohio State and London Bridge only require impulse and forethought, and are impossible to mitigate and counter. Why are tactics becoming more effective? This leads to the third point: technology.
All of the above points are enabled with technology that the 60’s would have marveled at. Protesters and would-be terrorists back in the day had The Anarchist’s Cookbook (still a classic, though) and later, Rules for Radicals. Today’s bad actors have the Internet. The Internet enables instant widespread research into tactics and methods: ideal for breeding copycats and wanna-be’s. Anyone can become an expert at chaos with little effort.
Today’s bad actors also have social media and communications capabilities far beyond the 60’s. Twitter and Facebook make flash-mobbing possible. The 2008 hotel attacks in Mumbai would have been difficult if not impossible without technology. The attackers even used technology to deliver disinformation to the authorities – “hey guys, we’re going to XYZ” when they were really going to ABC.
Outside of making knowledge about how to wreak carnage instantly available, the worst thing about the Internet is that it lowers the barrier of civility. The combination of anonymity (real or imagined) plus isolation lets people express themselves in ways that typical interaction would never permit. Anyone can say the most outrageous things in a Tweet… and anyone can read them and be influenced. Social media is a force multiplier for radicalization. Why is this not tamped down? That brings us to the final ‘T’ – Tolerance.
Our benevolence makes us permissive. There is a bias towards acceptance of today’s violence. Tolerance of the extremists of a movement if one agrees with their basic position is becoming de rigueur, and opposition to extremism brands one as a de facto extremist of ‘the other side’. Riots are called “protests” and “expressions of rage” by politicians (not all but some), news anchors and headline and editorial pages. I’ve seen an email from a West Coast company informing employees of a potentially violent demonstration outside their building, the first paragraph listing the security measures they’re taking and the second paragraph instructing on the proper process for joining the demonstration. Congresswoman Val Demmings (D-FL) called the violence at Berkeley “a beautiful sight”. The Mayor of Baltimore said of the race-inspired rioters, “we… gave those who wished to destroy space to do that.”
Gerhaughty’s point that today’s better surveillance and infiltration capabilities will stem violence becomes moot. What good is it if law enforcement, the FBI of NSA discover potential violence but do nothing? Better surveillance is not needed – just look at the evening news to see thousands marching down city streets screaming “What do we want? DEAD COPS! When do we want them? NOW!” or visit Twitter to see thousands openly calling for political assassination. Better surveillance can’t stop flash-mobs. Violence is hiding in plain sight, and the words we tolerate will turn to action with more frequency and ferocity in the near future.
Why is this important to businesses?
Regardless of your political or social persuasion, executives have an imperative to manage Risk. Violence does not have to be extreme or widespread to impact your business, it just has to be there. Also, violent extremist events do not favor organizations who support their cause. Mob mentality cannot be debated with. Therefore, here are some common-sense steps that every organization should adopt:
- Formulate a Risk Management and Business Continuity posture of ‘when not if’. Since violence cannot be predicted as to place or time, be prepared everywhere and all the time
- Know your environment. Businesses, especially those in urban or university environments, should ask: what’s the political or social temperature around me? Is there proclivity for hostility to escalate regardless of whether I agree with the issue? Who are my neighbors and organizations in close proximity? Are there any targets of opportunity near me? Infrastructure worth disrupting? Media presence? High-profile symbols of authority or opposing views? An unbiased external Risk Assessment can render independent opinion and help avoid risk bias
- Adopt an all-hazards approach to contingency planning and response. Today’s threats can be rapid and unpredictable. Businesses must be flexible and adaptable. Leading thinking is leaning toward general responses for employee accounting, contingency-mode operations, communications, reputation management. Since you cannot plan for every scenario, instead plan for business component impacts of “loss of workplace”, “loss of technology”, “loss of employees”, and “loss of ability to go to/from the office” and have addenda for specifics such as pandemic or cyber
- On the topic of employee accounting, Mass Emergency Notification platforms are table stakes for today’s communication needs. The ability to press a button and have a thousand employees get the email/text/mobile call/home phone/personal email message, “Checking up on your well-being, press 1 if you need help press 2 if you need support”, or the ability to rally the crisis team to a bridge with “Bridge up, press 1 to join” without distributing a phone number or host code/PIN is essential
- Practice, practice, practice! Periodic drills to get employees used to the emergency text or give practice opportunities to your critical staff will uncover gaps or weaknesses for remediation and be valuable training opportunities to drive competence and confidence. Mock disaster exercises also build valuable leadership skills such as speed of response, acting on less-than-perfect information, thinking ahead and sideways and remaining cool under pressure, that are useful every day, emergency or not. Independent facilitation of exercises can be a great way to bring external perspective into your plans and bring candid forthright opinion to your leadership
Make no mistake: it’s going to be a rougher ride than fifty years ago. With thoughtful pragmatic planning, without regard to ideology, businesses will be able to weather the coming storms.