Ever noticed how the debate on terrorism seems to be monopolized by those least qualified to address the matter? Bloggers, television personalities, and wannabe politicians like Donald Trump who wouldn’t be able to tell an ISIS terrorist from a Williamsburg hipster if their lives depended on it.

Which is why I reached out to my friend, Scott Nelson, to pick his brain. Scott is a former and highly decorated marine who served across the globe and was awarded the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and the Presidential Unit Citation. He rose to head the FBI’s public affairs office and was awarded the FBI Star for valor. Scott is the founder and president of Security & Risk Management Group, and is also an adjunct professor at Webster University, George Herbert Walker Graduate School of Business & Technology.

Scott Photo 2011 57-SNelson-014RT (3)AMK: The ISIS business model is about creating havoc, unleashing relentless global attacks targeting soft civilian targets. Is this inherently at odds with the conventional approach to law enforcement and counter-terrorism? In other words, are the security agencies prepared for this kind of threat?

SN: This has always been the challenge of law enforcement and security services. Since the dawn of time, crooks, thugs, terrorists, and child abusers have been changing with the times and so too must those whose job is to thwart them.Security forces face a daunting, ever-changing criminal landscape and must become smarter and more aggressive. Law enforcement concentrates on prevention, which is tantamount to reading tea leaves, but it does work most of the time. Prevention requires sophisticated investigative techniques, including the cooperation and participation of community members including, for example, all Muslims. Prevention is a shared responsibility.

In this article, I argue that counter-terrorism needs to be a complementary approach to counter-radicalization in the long-range fight against terrorism. Have our politicians and governments failed in containing the threat of Islamic radicalization now reaching feverish heights?

We absolutely need to focus more on counter-radicalization, the pipeline that feeds the terrorist ranks. It is as important as getting body counts on the battlefield which is the other side of the equation. While the military and security experts have long concentrated on “winning the hearts and minds” of the civilian populations, it hasn’t been easy nor necessarily successful. I recall for example my time as a young infantry Marine Corps officer in Vietnam. Even way back then, we worked the counter-radicalization gig against the indigenous Viet Cong. We met, we cooperated, we paid, we helped and we preached. And law enforcement has long concentrated on “community policing”.

But the counter-radicalization required today needs to be far more sophisticated. Dropping pamphlets on a villages simply won’t do. We must insist that all right thinking Muslim nations put boots on the ground, fight to protect their own territory, deny the Islamic terrorists their moral high ground, and most importantly, loudly and forcefully rail against these terrorist thugs. Not only must we kill the terrorists and lock up those we capture but we must dissuade others from joining the fight. We can’t counter anger and religious fervor by simply wishing it away.

As attacks like Paris and San Bernardino cut closer to home, the average man and woman must be asking themselves “What can I do to better protect myself and my family? Some say gun ownership is what makes deadly attacks easier to implement in the first place, others say if all civilians had guns, these attacks would be far less deadly. Is the threat of terrorism skewing and overly politicizing the debate on gun control, and what is the happy medium that would allow us to protect ourselves, without having guns fall in the wrong hands? 

The gun debate is loud and contentious. Certainly guns in the hands of terrorists, crooks, hoodlums, hooligans, idiots, thugs, bullies, thrill seekers, and punks is bad. But guns in the hands of law abiding, reasonable people who are authorized to have them is a constitutional right and a good thing. How do we prevent guns from getting in the hands of those who would use them to harm others? Like all violent crime, we can control gun possession but we can’t rid the world of guns. The sad reality is that people have been murdering people for thousands of years and will continue to do so for thousands of years to come. Bombs, rocks, knives, poison, choking, sticks and stones, and fists will always be available to those intent on harming others. Violence is part of the human psyche and guns are only one means to that end.

That said, gun control is important and worthy of our best efforts. Comprehensive background checks for all handguns and rifles is necessary and specific licenses should be issued, and like vehicle drivers, re-licensing and re-checking should periodically be done. Law enforcement should step-up its efforts to identify and arrest gun violators, and that includes enforcement at our borders.  Gun violators should be sentenced to long mandatory prison sentences with no hope of early release. Hollywood should stop glamorizing guns and violence. Families should be responsible for family members. Schools should teach anger management and personal responsibility. Churches should emphasize ethics and goodness. Politicians should promote harsh legislation for gun abusers. Businesses should have workplace violence programs. Professional athletes and entertainers should become real role models. Mental health solutions should be identified and enforced. Frankly, it is not so much about the guns as it is about the people who use them.

I’ve heard mixed advice on what to do if you are caught in a dangerous situation. Some say run, others say to play dead. As a veteran of law enforcement with years of experience, what’s your gold-standard advice? 

If you are caught in a dangerous situation, then your options at very best are limited. The gold standard is to avoid those situations. However, running, hiding, fighting, and even playing dead are all good options depending on the circumstances. Negotiation might also work in some situations. Regardless, keep a level head, be brave, and be smart. Passively accepting your own demise is not an option.