In recent times the number of innocent people being gunned down, blown up, run over, stabbed, and otherwise maimed by fanatics is surely a sign that the status quo has ceased to be an option. Granted, statistically you have a far greater chance of being hit by lightning than being killed by a religious terrorist, or nutcase mass murderer, but the fear is real and living with fear diminishes our lives.

How fanatics kill is what truly disturbs us. The randomness of their attacks mean you can be doing everything right, making good decisions, living a respectful and caring life, and still end up dead on the street. Indeed, victims appear to be picked purely on the basis of access and vulnerability. Theatres, schools, colleges, street crowds, conference delegates, workers in an enclosed space, terrorists choose wherever a large number of unarmed people gather. And the killers don't plan on surviving so there is no consequence inhibiting them, no mortal fear, only fear of failure. This level of detachment shakes our view of the world.

So how can we defend against these outrages? Western governments are spending literally trillions of dollars on this effort and, at present, are quick to claim a winning record. Although, the attacks are rare considering both the openness of our societies and the resources fanatics have at their disposal, the notion that it could be a lot worse is not satisfying. It simply means we are at risk for an even more frightening existence.

People need a reasonable level of security for their individual mental health, but what can we do to achieve it? One way, we are told, is not to trust anybody. If you see something suspicious call the police – gun possession, particularly, is an indication of possible disasters in the offing. And the police respond. We have seen all manner of individuals taken down by swat teams for such things as being observed with paint ball guns or pellet guns or legal sporting or target rifles. The police have even shot children playing with toy guns. There are millions of guns in circulation and the vast majority are legal - owned by people who have no desire to kill anyone - but we don’t know them personally so they remain a threat.

In addition, bombs may be constructed from materials purchased at the local hardware or grocery store and, supposedly, are so easy to build a child could manage it. Witness the fact that a fourteen-year-old student was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school, to show his teachers. To his dismay adult members of the educational establishment mistook it for a bomb. The child was subsequently taken into police custody where he was fingerprinted, interrogated (without being allowed to call his parents), and charged with inciting a bomb hoax. That is, until an expert looked at the “bomb” and decided it was, indeed, just a clock.

And we must not ignore the threat of chemical warfare from that same quadrant of our population. A grade three student, even more recently, was removed from a school bus by police, arrested, placed in the back of a police cruiser, and taken to the local station because it was reported, by another child, that she had “chemicals” in her backpack. A thorough search of her pack while on the bus found no sign of chemicals but it didn’t halt her arrest and subsequent interrogation. Did they believe she had secreted the chemicals on her person? The article reporting this story made no attempt to imply what chemicals she was believed to be carrying, although, they must have thought it to be something significantly harmful (anthrax, crystal meth??). Again, nothing was found.

It appears people in authority are becoming afraid to make judgment calls because, in the event they are wrong – however small that possibility – they will be blamed. It is simply more prudent to follow a mindless protocol. As a result, children, even elementary school children, are being arrested and traumatized as possible mass murderers.

How far will this take us? Will major fashion houses be coming out with a line of Kevlar evening wear, are puppy mills in the process of churning out personal sniffer dogs that can identify bombs and chemical warfare agents while fetching a stick in the park?

Such is the extent of our paranoia that many citizens are demanding an increase in police powers – a dangerous proposition given the reported abuses we have witnessed in the news lately. Undoubtedly, more police would provide a greater protective presence at social gatherings. The cost of this increased protection would be enormous of course, and mostly wasted. Police can’t be everywhere at once and mass killers would, with very little effort, be able to determine which groups were vulnerable and which are well defended. Police protective equipment is relatively easy to spot.

A popular saying in many urban areas relates that “when seconds count, the police are only minutes away,” and that is true. Regardless of the almost immediate reporting methods provided by our ubiquitous mobile communication devices, and the efficiency of emergency contact services, police can’t be instantly transported to situations where innocent lives are being taken. The reality remains, in an attack by a mass killer or killers, initially, everyone is on their own.

The American answer to this problem, at least in some states, is to allow citizens to be armed. This solution has its good and bad points. Yes, it would be nice if, when a deranged killer pulls out a gun and begins shooting, they are immediately engaged by a bevy of armed defenders. And, No, I don’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry (and Jane) who wishes to carry a concealed firearm to have that opportunity. Far too many of them are capable of being clumsy or negligent or trigger happy, or even criminal under certain circumstances. Just look at those in our society who already have the right to carry pistols. Every year we hear of stories of peace officers gunning down individuals who present little or no immediate threat to anyone, even themselves – and peace officers pass through a rigorous selection process and undergo intense training to prevent such actions. How could we trust individuals who select and train themselves?

We, in modern democratic societies, are vulnerable, and not only do we accept it, we demand it. We want our freedoms, we want our privacy, and we are constantly on the lookout for attempts, within our institutions, to limit either. At the same time, we demand security. We wish to live our lives with as few restrictions and anxieties as possible. The arguments we are now facing encompass the question, " Where is the compromise between freedom and security?"

                                Part Two

Finding the balance between freedom and security is huge. So huge in fact we abandon it to government. We depend on them to define the many nuances and ancillary issues and find solutions to problems. At present they are faced with two options. Should they cede more power to the now quasi-military police forces and the highly secretive intelligence agencies – admonishing them not to abuse it, hoping the famous dictum “power corrupts” doesn’t apply to our security services? Or should they simply accept that a few fanatics will get through and hope that we, the people, will view those instances as just profoundly tragic circumstances? It is a no win situation for governments. They get blamed for both the loss of freedoms and the leakage when a mass murderer is successful. And politicians don't like being blamed for anything. As a result, their solution has generally been to give the responsibility to the "professionals". Unfortunately, the professionals - police and military organizations - are prone to accepting a narrow protective focus that flows from a "worst case scenario" and "better safe than sorry" understanding. Too often, following this protocol means respect for human rights and freedoms becomes dispensable.

One possible option being suggested in other jurisdictions is for governments to request widely trusted members within each community to undergo training in the use of firearms – with the plan being for them to carry those firearms whenever they attend public gatherings. Voluntary and unpaid of course, founded on community support and selection, and subject to a high standard of mature and ethical conduct. For instance, select teachers in some schools in the United States are being asked to undergo training and carry concealed weapons while on the job. It certainly puts more defenders out there, although, if it becomes widespread I would expect a great deal of backlash from the police establishment. They could view this as an infringement on their territory and, perhaps, even a threat at times. If a peace officer were to pull their pistol and shoot someone who apparently poses no danger to society - who knows how a trusted volunteer would react.

When I discuss this trade-off, between freedom and security, people often suggest they wouldn’t mind paying extra for security, if it was guaranteed to produce results. Certainly some measure of extra security would likely be likely with any large increase in spending. However, the question revolves around value. How much security can we gain for each additional dollar? Money spent by government carries with it an opportunity cost. To spend it on security means that same dollar can’t be spent on health care or infrastructure improvements. Take for example the late, sometimes lamented, “long gun registry” here in Canada. Two billion dollars of federal tax money spent and, if the firearm organizations are to be believed, not one concrete example of a life saved. Their suggestion being that this same amount of money could have placed an extra MRI in every major hospital in the country with full-time staffing. Imagine how many lives that would have helped. I, for one, have waited months for an MRI and, believe me, there is palpable terror involved in that process as well.

No matter how you slice it, protecting society from mass murderers is not only expensive it requires personal sacrifices. One sacrifice is, of course, individual freedoms. This includes living in a closely monitored world where cameras are everywhere and all calls, emails, texts – even conversations held in public places – are screened for signs of aberrant behaviour. Is this what it will take? If so, a rant spoken to a good friend, or as a joke, may land you in jail. Government’s now “sort of” have the ability to arrest and hold people purely on the possibility of them being dangerous, with no requirement to share the information it used to justify their actions, (thus providing no way to defend yourself). This is justified, we must remember, because we live in a world where violent, irrational, fanatics have the ability to express their passion, commitment, and hatred, using the latest in destructive technologies. To prevent dying at the hands of these fanatics we may need to accept the loss of privacy, dignity, openness, and free expression, and the occasional imprisonment of innocent individuals. So say people who trust and defend authority.

The choice we, as individuals, face, ends up being between putting our faith in huge, secretive, tightly controlled bureaucracies, or in finding ways to trust and rely on each other. Do we cave to the paranoia that allows us to see children as terrorists; do we acknowledge that personal privacy is an outdated concept; do we accept that anyone can be forced to lie spread eagle on the ground while being searched and questioned with a gun in their face, simply because a peace officer thought they looked suspicious; or do we seek out more ways to trust others and share the burden of protection among ourselves - understanding that, tragically, a deranged individual will occasionally get through. Believe it or not, this is our choice. It just isn't an easy one.