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Dealing with terrorism should focus on solutions, not theatrics

Orlando massacre is still on everyone's minds because of many issues it raised

The horrific attack in an Orlando nightclub June 12 could have happened anywhere at any time — and that sad reality should prompt every community to consider how to lessen the odds that it will be a target for the deranged.

Oregon residents know as well as anyone that public spaces are highly susceptible to the ravages of people willing to act on the unthinkable. In this state, the evidence has been so tragically demonstrated at Thurston High School, Reynolds High School, Umpqua Community College and Clackamas Town Center.

Our collective vulnerability also was laid bare by the thinking of one young extremist who harbored fantasies of setting off a bomb at the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Portland’s Pioneer Square in 2010.

The massacre in Orlando has touched off a political debate of whether it was a terrorist act or a hate crime. The answer to that question will bring scant solace to the vast number of people who are injured or grieving.

However, for the purposes of prevention, understanding the shooter’s motivation eventually will be important. Knowing the warning signs of an individual’s growing radicalism — or of a hatred about to turn violent — is crucial to any hope of stopping these crimes before they happen.

It is too early in the investigation to draw firm conclusions, but the fact that the FBI had previously looked into the Orlando shooter’s behavior is an indication that perhaps more could have been done to impede his acquisition of an assault rifle and a handgun.

For some time now, law enforcement officials have known that the largest terrorist threat to this country comes from within — from young men who become alienated and attracted to extremist ideology. In our view, this threat justifies the sting operations that the FBI has conducted, including the one that snared the potential Portland Christmas tree-lighting bomber. That individual, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, was set up by the FBI but showed his willingness to carry through with a plot to kill hundreds.

Also important are the joint terrorism task forces that tie together the knowledge of the FBI and local law enforcement officials. Without a coordinated effort — and information sharing — the challenge of identifying homegrown terrorists becomes even more difficult.

Of course, mass shootings do not always, or even typically, involve terrorism. Young men who become alienated and angry for completely different reasons pose an ongoing danger to our communities.

In the face of these persistent threats, public officials and everyday citizens must continue to educate themselves about the warning signs and adopt policies that support the anti-terrorist work of law enforcement agencies. They also must find better ways of keeping powerful guns out of the hands of people who are mentally unstable or who’ve demonstrated an unhealthy obsession with extremist ideologies.

It’s also vital to consider the balance between the need for safety and the freedoms of an open society. Greater security measures — including improved use of technology — could help to harden some public spaces that are particularly at risk.

There are steps that can be taken to make our communities safer. However, such actions require a frank discussion — locally and nationally — about domestic terrorism, the role of guns and individual privacy vs. the right of the majority to live without fear of attack. Orlando’s mass shooting has brought shock, anger and sadness, but it also is fueling a great deal of partisan political finger pointing.

If ever there was an issue that ought to transcend politics and be decided instead by evidence-based research, it is this one. No community should have to endure the horrors of Orlando, but reducing the danger requires action, not political theatrics or mere words of comfort.