It’s nearing 11 at night. I walk briskly in a feeble attempt to stay warm during a typical mid-December night in Toronto. It’s not overly cold nor is it snowing, but it’s cold enough to keep the snow piles on the side of the road frozen. This isn’t the worst area in town, but it’s late and I’m walking alone. It’s mostly residential and there are street lights, even if some aren’t working. Suddenly, I feel a very sharp, intense pain then warmth. Next thing I know, two men are running away with my purse. I realize I’ve just been stabbed and robbed.
This is not my narrative, but it was for this woman. The headline claims that this was a “random” attack. Let me explain by starting with the definition of random, “without aim, direction, rule, or method.” An attack without aim, direction or method. Does it seem that this perpetrator was directionless or without aim?
Violence comes from a need for something. That need can be many things such as: status, monetary gain, urge release, or emotional response. Since violence is used as a mechanism to achieve something and follows a cycle (that’s aim, direction and method), this means violence can not be random. I will say there are a few times when the victim can be random; such as an unintended target of a drive-by shooting or similar. Typically, victims are chosen for being soft or easy targets. This seems to be the case for the woman in the news report.
You might be wondering what this has to do with information analysis and why/how we would use information analysis. Semantics are very important. How we use words and phrases to describe things can either give an accurate description or warp the perception of those topics. This is especially true when done on a grand scale such as mass media or when expressed by an authority figure (self defense instructor, expert, etc.). Using “random” as an example, assigning the term random to crime and violence gives the impression that nothing can be done or that its about being unlucky. This is absolutely inaccurate.
I recently ran a poll that asked how to define “random” violence and 72% of the respondents chose “violence that happens for no reason without pattern.” This shows there is at least some misconception about violence and it’s place in our society today.
All of this comes into play when analyzing news reports for your specialized threat assessment (or staying on top of current events, research, etc.) and when “experts” give us their opinion on a subject. It’s important to understand that you’re analyzing information to gather intelligence. The difference between information and intelligence is pretty simple. Information is everywhere about everything; intelligence is what pertains specifically to your needs. In short, we need to read through the fluff to gather accurate intelligence to create our threat assessments, to understand what kind violence may impact us, how it may do so, and what we can do about it.
My next newsletter will share a few articles that will help you decipher media reports. Until then, here are three tips that I use to help me read through the fluff.
1) Identify the rhetoric and be familiar with logical fallacies.
It’s important to be able to quickly see when a writer is trying to manipulate the reader with an appeal to ethos or pathos but ignores the logic or facts. For example, it’s perfectly acceptable to use an emotional appeal to gain attention (pathos), show credibility through experiences, background information or sources (ethos), and logic or facts to prove the point (logos). However, it’s not acceptable to build an argument on logical fallacies and appeal only to the emotions of the reader. Here are two good lists of fallacies with examples and summaries of logos, pathos and ethos.
2) Using unnecessary adjectives to describe an event.
Using terms like “random” or “senseless” to describe the type of violence used in an attack are a good example of this. These adjectives are used for an agenda rather than to convey specific information about the attack. Just because the writer doesn’t see the cycle or the act doesn’t make sense to that person, doesn’t mean those factors are missing. If the act was described as brutal, vicious, or unprovoked, it at least provides some actual insight into the attack (however objective as it may be).
3) Identify the sources of the original information.
Who or where did they get their information? Two rules of thumb on this:
1. If they do not identify where the sources of information come from and I find some type of fallacy, I become very skeptical of the information. The writer is probably writing for a specific agenda and may be deceitful.
2. When the source(s) of information is/are anonymous, I automatically proceed with caution. There are several reasons for this:
a) Possibly a real source who is giving accurate information.
b) Possibly a made up source for a specific agenda.
c) The source is speaking anonymously and giving inaccurate information for an agenda.
d) The source is not supposed to divulge information for a reason (classified or sensitive). That individual broke that responsibility by discussing the information anyway, for their agenda.
None the less, I don’t know which one I’m dealing with and this makes me skeptical of the writer and information.
The goal is to think critically about what information is being presented. Don’t merely take someone’s word for it. Go find out for yourself. Here is a visualization of what I’m talking about.
1 “Random.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 12 July 2015. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/random>.
2 Ami Toben, Protective Intelligence and Surveillance Detection, Protection Circle, https://protectioncircle.wordpress.com/2015/07/10/protective-intelligence-and-surveillance-detection/(July 10, 2015 ).