Management / The American View: The Unnerving Facts of Life

The American View: The Unnerving Facts of Life

If the Boy Scouts can create and deliver training that addresses deeply-disturbing topics, so can your organisation. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger advocates for all organisations to deploy ‘suspicious package’ training to its members in response to the recent domestic terrorism attacks in Austin, Texas.

Austin, Texas was plagued with a series of anonymous bombings earlier this month. On Friday, 2nd March, 39-year-old Anthony House was killed when he opened a package that he found on his doorstep. On Monday, 12th March, 17-year-old Draylen Mason and 75-year-old Esperanza Hererra were each killed in identical bombing attacks miles apart by packages that they found on their doorsteps. All three victims were murdered in their homes with bombs hidden in what appeared to be mundane home deliveries.

Two more people were killed by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) that had been rigged with a tripwire along a walking path by the same murderer, but I want to focus on the package bombs angle right now. I don’t want to dissect the bomber’s psychopathology or motives; I don’t have enough evidence to come to anything resembling a useful hypothesis. Let’s label this fiend a ‘domestic terrorist’ and let the experts figure out what turned him into a deranged mass murderer.

Instead, I want to address an issue that makes people deeply uncomfortable: talking frankly about specific manifestations of violent crime and how to protect yourself from a viable threat. You might think that this is a no-brainer: if something is going on in your community that represents a small-but-certain risk of death, you teach your people how to protect themselves. Instead, counterintuitively, many parents seem to be more terrified of talking about threats than they are afraid of the threats themselves!

The thing is, I kinda get it … For all our marketing hype about being bold individualists who enshrine free speech over all other rights, Americans are often squeamish and puritanical when it comes to discussing some subjects. Sex, for example. Throughout most of the USA, our kids don’t get useful sex education. States and cities defer that education to parents who, in turn, refuse to talk about it at all. Real-world violence is another ‘icky’ subject in the USA; millions of American parents don’t mind letting their kids ingest tons of pornographic violence [1] on TV night after night, but they strangely won’t discuss real-world violence (or how to stop it) with their kids. Things like the gassing of Syrian children, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, or the mad bomber who spent most of March terrorizing Texas.

Talking about these subjects makes a lot of Americans deeply uncomfortable because the subjects themselves are horrifying and because they usually can’t be dismissed with a catchy cure-all slogan. As a nation, we love easy answers. We want solutions that can be delivered in a pithy aphorism or a marketing slogan in the same amount of time that it takes to advertise a jingoistic burger or a new pickup truck. We want clear heroes and obvious villains. We don’t want to deal with nuance, ambiguity, weighty consequences, and moral ambivalence. [2]

The idea that parents would refuse to teach their kids how to recognize and protect themselves from lethal explosives, though, seems insane. These are children; a parent is supposed to do everything in his or her power to protect them. So, talk about it!

That makes sense, right? The responsible thing to do is for every parent to sit their kid(s) down, ignore their own discomfort, and have a level-headed, practical discussion about what’s happening in the community, how package bombs work, how to recognize them, and what to do if/when one’s discovered. Parents have to teach their kids the dispassionate facts if they want their kids to survive. Can we all agree on that?

Good. Now let’s replace the word ‘parent’ with ‘employer’ and ‘kid’ with ‘employee.’ The exact same principle still holds true, right? Right?!?

This is Business Reporter. You probably should have suspected that there was a change in direction coming this deep in the article. 

That dull ‘thud!’ noise you probably just heard came from a thousand corporate lawyers simultaneously fainting in existential dread. You can practically hear their chorus of objections: ‘What about our liability?’ and ‘What if our training isn’t perfect and we get sued?’ and ‘How do we prove that our instructors are qualified to teach the subject to our auditors’ or to our regulators’ satisfaction?’ and, in some cases, ’AIEEEE!’

I understand their objections, I really do. I actually empathize with the lawyers’ position. Remember: corporate lawyers are paid to be extremely conservative and risk averse, as a sort of ‘choke chain’ on a company’s more adventurous leaders. They’re intended to act as a counterbalance; good lawyers ensure that company leaders consider all of the ramifications of an idea and think through everything that might go wrong in implementing that idea before committing to it. Their nay-sayer role matters.

The thing is, we know the ramifications of a package bomb going off when someone opens it. We knew it because we saw what happened to Anthony House, Draylen Mason, and Esperanza Hererra: the person closest to the detonating bomb dies. Could someone find fault with some element of a ‘bomb recognition and defence’ course? Certainly. Absolutely! That being said, the sting of an administrative complaint doesn’t come close to the anguish of losing a team member. I argue that the potential impact of doing nothing so far outweighs the potential impact of doing anything to prevent the manifestation of the risk that ‘doing nothing’ is utterly unacceptable.

I’ve heard it argued that this subject is so far outside the normal range of what most organisations do that it can’t be taught effectively. I reject that argument. I know that the content already exists because I’ve taught it: the U.S. Department of Defense has been training both military and civilian staff about IED defence since before the Forever War kicked off. Those of us who managed mail and package deliver received extensive training on how to recognize, report, and respond to IED threats. Most of this content is publically available. More importantly, there are tens of thousands of veterans qualified to teach it – some of whom probably already work in your organisation. The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security has entire catalogue of available training resources here.

Beth commanded an attack helicopter squadron in Afghanistan. She can train Edgar how to spot a package bomb. 

I’ve also heard that this subject is too ‘disturbing’ to discuss in the workplace. I reject that argument as well. Lots of subjects are disturbing, yet organisations have no choice but to grapple with them anyway. Case in point: the Boy Scouts of America responded to the child sexual abuse scandals of the 1980s by creating an extensive in-house Youth Protection Program that includes mandatory training for all of its members. Rather than shy away from the subject or treat it as a one-and-done box-checking exercise, the training experts at BSA HQ have continued to improve and optimize the YP training content year after year because they know that the consequences of doing nothing can be far worse than the ‘pain’ of having an awkward and uncomfortable conversation.

I get that this is a disturbing subject. I understand how terrifying it is to realize that any package left on one’s doorstop might explode and kill them because some death-obsessed domestic terrorist chose them at random to be one of his bloody ‘statements.’ It’s thoroughly unnerving. That said, the situation is not hopeless and must not be ignored in the hopes that I’ll go away on its own.

I know from my experience teaching soldiers, airmen, and civil servants that people of all ages and from all walks of life can be trained how to recognize, react to, and protect themselves from radiological, chemical, biological, and explosive devices delivered through the mail. It can be done, it applies to an active threat, our people are vulnerable, therefore it must be done. Do you have a mailing address? Then you need to be trained.

I swear … I don’t want to hear another company spout the universal platitude that their employees are their ‘greatest assets!’ ever again if they’re unwilling to do what’s necessary and appropriate to protect those ‘greatest assets.’ Businesses can’t be operated like we’re all living in a cheesy and one-dimensional 1980s sitcom; our institutions need to ‘cowboy up’ and deal with the grim reality unfolding in our communities.

Just because this domestic terrorist bomber was stopped doesn’t mean that the threat is going away. If we’ve learned anything from hyper-violent school shootings and workplace violence, every new headline-grabbing murder spree inevitably inspires copycat offenders. It was Austin in March. It’ll be somewhere else tomorrow. Better get ahead of it now, while we can.


[1] I’m using the academic definition of ‘pornographic’ here, as in ‘an act removed form it’s natural emotional state and consequences.’ My sociology of deviance and criminology professors explain it like so: if ‘pornographic sex’ is sex without love, then ‘pornographic violence’ is violence without pain, fear, or trauma. Prime-time television gun violence fits this definition since most on-screen gunshots are portrayed as both bloodless and pain-free with no lingering emotional consequences for either the shooter or the victim.

[2] That’s why most U.S. public school history classes can be summed up as ‘Persecuted martyrs fled tyrannical Europe, founded America, created The Greatest Nation on Earth™ and then won World War II. The end.’

Title Allusions: Dick Clair, Howard Leeds, and Jerry Mayer, The Facts of Life (1979-1988 TV series)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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