News: Charlotte Exclusives

Local Battles, Global War

Charlotte's need for front-line thinking

Recent action on the homeland security front underscores that national and international concerns often devolve to local issues. The performance of local government agencies then becomes crucial to successful outcomes for polices of global import.

Sound intimidating? You bet, but not overwhelming.

With the guilty plea of Kamran Akhtar on immigration charges, Charlotte comes to closure on one incident that demonstrates how local officials can effectively implement national polices with international implications. The Department of Homeland Security has issued clear guidelines that video or photographic surveillance of key points of infrastructure should be reported to FBI counter-terrorism units.

In the case of Akhtar, not only was the Pakistani man making videos of such infrastructure, in the judgment of Charlotte police officer, he was evasive about his intentions when questioned about his activities. This clearly met federal directives to report suspicious activity.

But note how the feds cannot, and should not, attempt to spell out in excruciating detail all possible examples of what constitutes suspicious activity. It is gray area whose details must be filled in competent local professionals. In this case, it was.

Similarly, this week’s Department of Education warning to school districts nationwide to be aware of suspicious activity is simply not the kind of thing federal officials can well-define or follow-up on, even if they try. Fortunately, every school, public and private, will have a well-established “lock down” or emergency situation drill. That, together with what should be a school’s healthy suspicion toward any stranger on school grounds, constitutes a reasonable level of protection without giving into a vague fear of the unknown.

But what about the instances when federal officials can point to more specific intelligence? Info on six school districts was recently found on a computer disk in Iraq. The info might have benign uses, such as research for setting up Iraqi schools. Or it might, indeed, represent an attempt to case particular U.S. institutions.

It is interesting to note that upon receiving notification of the intelligence, school districts in Michigan and in Georgia opted to react in different ways. In Michigan, the response was geared more to understanding and double-checking existing security plans for schools. But in Georgia attempts are being made to actively add more security. This response, again, is not the sort of thing local officials cannot expect federal officials to dictate to them.

For that reason, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools should take this opportunity to imagine that CMS had been among the districts to receive a more specific FBI notification. What if CMS school info had been found on a disk in Iraq? Security planning calmly undertaken in advance will always be superior to a pell-mell rush to “do something” about the latest worry.

The need for a long-term local response to security concerns can also be seen in the intention to interview members of the local Muslim community as part of pre-election terror worries. Although federal interest in specific communities may ebb and flow depending on the intelligence of the moment, some of it quite ephemeral, local officials need to recognize the value of good relationships with these communities.

The only interaction Muslim residents have with local law enforcement should not come whenever the FBI decides threat-assessment interviews are needed. Counter-terrorism depends on good intelligence, and intelligence requires trust. Let’s try to build that everyday.

Taken as a whole, all of these various homeland security issues demand good judgment from local officials. As was once said of pornography, bad judgment is hard to define to but you know it when you see it. It is perhaps unfair to put the good judgment burden so squarely on local officials, but such is the nature of current conflict that success or failure may be determined very close to home.