FBI Director James Comey: There was nothing we could have done differently


After the atrocity in Orlando recently, in which around one hundred people in a gay nightclub were shot, about half of them fatally, by a man who pledged allegiance before the shooting to the terrorist and extreme Islamist organization, ISIS, James Comey, the director of the FBI, had to come before the public and make a statement. Part of the FBI’s job is to prevent incidents like the one in Orlando, and the public was full of questions after one of the worst massacres in U.S. history. Comey made a series of statements, informing the public of some of the history of the shooter, who in fact was already on the radar of the FBI and also recommending that Americans should continue to lives their lives and not allow fear to rule them. I consider this recommendation, and others like them, to be vapid, and I will discuss this point next. The most interesting comment Comey made was that there was nothing the FBI could have done differently to prevent the attack. This comment will be the second item for discussion in this blog post.

First, the vapid recommendation. After terrorist attacks and mass shootings, people make gestures of what I see as a pseudo-defiance. Their country has just undergone a grave attack, and these people want to show resilience. So, I hear often a sentiment that goes something like this: we just endured a horrible attack, but I’m not going to back down and cower in fear. I’m going to continue to live my life as if nothing had happened. I’m going to continue to train for the marathon, continue to attend the gay pride event, continue to get up in the morning and take the subway into the city. The continuation of daily life and activities that people enjoy is meant as a gesture of defiance. It’s meant to show the terrorists that they have not achieved anything.

But, as I’ve said, I think such gestures are vapid and, though I empathize with them, I find them annoying. I find these gestures annoying because they accomplish nothing with respect to winning the war on terror. The mere fact that you continue to live your life does nothing to diminish the continuing machinations of the terrorist organizations. If anything, it helps the terrorist organizations, since they continue to have opportunities to do damage as large groups of people aggregate for major events. The fact that people in a country continue to live their lives after a terrorist attack does not intimidate terrorists. People seem to think, for instance, that the fact that they went to the Boston marathon after the most recent one was disrupted by an attack amounts to a sort of victory. But, it doesn’t. All that happened is that terrorists were presented with the same opportunity as before: large groups of people gathered on a day set in advance and so became fair game for a premeditated terrorist plot.

I’m not saying that people should not continue to live their daily lives after a terrorist attack, or get together for a major event. But, people need to do more. What might really impress a terrorist, I think, is if people start holding their politicians and criminal justice institutions accountable. If they educate themselves on the organizations that threaten them. If they get training in self-defense so they can protect themselves and others in case an attack happens. So, Comey’s recommendation to just go on living as if nothing had happened is not enough for me. I think, to some extent, living in fear is good, as fear might lead to some lifestyle changes that will make us safer.

Now, I will discuss the comment of Comey’s to the effect that there was nothing the FBI could have done differently. With this comment, Comey exonerated his organization and himself of any culpability for the Orlando shooting. And I find this comment puzzling and fascinating. I want to unpack its meaning. It seems that Comey’s comment presupposes a pessimism about the power of law enforcement agencies to fight crime. There was nothing, in other words, that the FBI could have done that would have prevented the Orlando massacre. The massacre did not happen because of incompetence or laziness, bad procedure or communication. Instead, the FBI did everything in its power but everything in its power was not enough. So, Comey sounds kind of Hobbesian here, or like a Christian thinker with a strong sense of original sin: evil is ineradicable from the world.

However, I find the comment galling as well. Comey was not willing to concede the notion that the Orlando shooting represents a failure on the part of the FBI. But, one might argue, the Orlando shooting has to be a failure, since it is an example of a situation in which the FBI failed to achieve its purpose, i.e. to protect the American people, in a particularly disastrous fashion. Let’s shift the scene to another situation to get a clearer understanding of my point. Imagine a deli. The purpose of the deli is to provide people with lunchmeat and cheese that is, if not of high quality, at least not harmful to the individuals who eat it. Let us say that some of the lunchmeat the deli provides turns out to be toxic, and four people tragically die from eating it. The deli manager then comes before the public and denies that the toxic food represent a failure on the part of the deli. But, the toxic food has to represent a failure, since the purpose of the deli is to provide people with food that, if not of high quality, is at least edible.

I think what the deli manager might mean when he says that there was not a failure on the deli’s part is that people working on behalf of the deli followed all the standard operating procedures as they put the toxic meat onto the market. The deli manager could then go through all the records people kept on the meat as it made its way from being part of an animal to going to the deli display case and find that everyone was ‘doing their job,’ by which he means that everyone is following the guidelines their training has prepared them to follow and for which they are paid. So, one person has to take the temperature of the meat at a certain point, another person has to run certain toxicity tests at another. In doing these things, deli employees are fulfilling their professional obligations.

A similar situation may have happened with the FBI. Everyone in the FBI was fulfilling their professional obligations and following the standard operating procedures. But the problem is, perhaps, that no one went out of their way to ensure the safety of the public. No one in the deli put the meat through the extra test, that they did not have to perform according to their job description, that would have uncovered the toxicity. Similarly, no followed up on the Orlando killer thoroughly enough to know that the man was dangerous and should be put under arrest. No one took the extra precaution of continuing to interrogate the man even though legally it was okay to let him go free. It is similar to the gun dealers who allowed him to buy an assault rifle. They may have fulfilled their legal obligation, but perhaps they could have gone out of their way by doing something they were not legally obligated to do, to ensure the safety of the public.




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