NIU Shooting Victim Memorial

Management / The American View: Preparing for the Violence (that Follows the Violence)

The American View: Preparing for the Violence (that Follows the Violence)

We don’t seem to be willing to stop school shootings, so the next best thing we can do is prepare for the lunatic fringe violence that comes after each ‘unstoppable’ mass murder event.  Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger holds the intolerable madness that is US gun politics at arm’s length for a moment and discusses organisational Crisis Response for the acts of violence that follow these tragedies like plague following war.

So, here we are: the USA has endured another school shooting. On Valentine’s Day, a violent criminal murdered 14 children and 3 adults at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. That this event wasn’t the most horrifying violent crime of the last year (coming as it does on the heels of the Sutherland Springs massacre last November and the Las Vegas massacre in October) is a strong indictment of America’s warped violence-obsessed culture and legislative incompetence. The world is getting so accustomed to hearing about these acts of insane mass murder in the US that people everywhere are getting desensitized to the horror (which is, in and of itself, insane).

As is usual following a mass murder event, US legislators refuse to take any meaningful action to prevent another event like this from occurring. This is as predictable as the tide coming in. Most US politicians are dead-set against even discussing corrective action. As the satire site The Onion repeats after every mass shooting event: ‘”No Way To Prevent This” Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.’ Gah!

Also usual for a mass murder event, some far-right extremists have attacked the survivors of the latest school shooting online in an effort to both discredit the survivors’ attempts to persuade legislators and to advance a ridiculous narrative that these mass murder events across the country aren’t real, but are a performance put on by hundreds of professional actors working for a shadowy government agency in order to justify a totalitarian takeover of the country. To call these actions ‘character attacks’ doesn’t really capture the magnitude of the problem. This isn’t limited to vile interpersonal conduct; in many events, its taking the form of harassment, stalking, and death threats.

Imagine the experience from the survivors’ perspective: they survive a terrifying near-death experience, and before they can finish burying their lost friends, some psychopath slides into their social media feed and threatens to murder them because (he, she, or it says) the survivors’ experience wasn’t real.  

It didn’t used to manifest like this. Some people have always been mesmerized by the allure of epic, government-scale conspiracy theories. Pick your poison: flat earthers, hollow earthers, Kennedy assassination zealots, faked moon landing believers, 9/11 truthers … There’s at least one massive conspiracy theory out there that’s custom fitted for everyone, whether left-, right-, centre-, or anarchist-leaning. Back in 2005, Penn and Teller devoted an entire episode of their myth-skewering TV series to exploring these theories and the people who advocate for them. For years, the general consensus was that these people’s irrational beliefs were quaint; so long as they weren’t inflicting real harm on others, it was fine to let people believe whatever weirdness they liked.

They the Sandy Hook school massacre happened, and a new flavour of highly-aggressive conspiracy theorist caught society off guard. In June of 2017, a Floridian woman was sentenced to five months in prison for making death threats against the parents of one of the victims killed at Sandy Hook. Frances Robles of the New York Times wrote:

‘The woman, Lucy Richards, 57, faces four counts of transmitting threats in interstate commerce. Ms. Richards sent four messages in January that said things such as: “You gonna die. Death is coming to you real soon,” according to an indictment made public on Wednesday. Ms. Richards’s belief “that the school shooting was a hoax and never happened allegedly motivated her to make the charged threats …”’

Richards’ (as well as others involved in the Sandy Hook ‘truther’ community) escalation from complaining to threatening violence seemed to embolden trolls and conspiracy theorists. It suddenly became acceptable to cross the line from advocating for a theory or against a story to directly engage the people featured as villains or conspirators in their theories. This drastic change somehow became normalised in the fringe community. Parkland survivor Cameron Kasky announced on Thursday that he’s quitting Facebook because of death threats made by anti-gun control advocates. [1]

He says he might come back to the platform later, once normalcy returns. Unfortunately for all of us, this madness IS normal

In 2015, Ben Collins of the Daily Beast suggested in his compelling and chilling analysis that the conspiracy theorists’ escalation problem may be a psychological defence mechanism. The objective truth – that our nation’s irrational obsession with firearms means that anyone can be murdered most anywhere at any time for no reason at all – is emotionally and cognitively overwhelming. ‘It is simply easier’ Collins wrote ’for some people to believe that the United States government has concocted a vast conspiracy to take away all of our guns than it is to believe that it is too easy for a mentally ill person to acquire one and shoot anyone they want.’ [2]

For someone subscribing to this alternate interpretation of reality, the motivation to lash out at people that the conspiracy theorist believes to be cynical, paid actors can become overpowering. If these ‘actors’ or ‘willing conspirators’ (the logic goes) are attacking the theorist’s beliefs, rights, property, or way of life, then the theorist is morally justified in counterattacking them to restore balance and make the aggressing Other back down. If you ignore the crucial fact that the fundamental conspiracy premise is insane, then the theorists’ incentive to ‘fight back’ seems reasonable. It’s considered active self-defence.

Why bring this topic up in Business Reporter instead of, say, the ‘US and Canada’ section of BBC News? Because this new irrational, spiteful, and dangerous brand of conspiracy theory adventurism isn’t an isolated societal problem that businesses can ignore, any more than any other social problem affecting workers can be ignored by the businesses that employ them. People bring their irrational beliefs with them to the office. Most people will tamp down their outside passions while at work in order to get along with their coworkers. Some people will try to convince others to adopt their beliefs. A small but significant minority of workers will try to advance their conspiracy-driven beliefs while on the clock. Those are the people that leaders at all echelons have to prepare for.

I worked with a few conspiracy aficionados who believed that the Sandy Hook massacre and Pulse Nightclub massacre were both deliberately faked by the same vast, left-wing, quasi-government agency. They tried convincing me to join their delusion over a casual lunch outside the office. They were moderately offensive, I told them to go pound sand, and they responded politely by changing the subject and never raising the topic in my presence again. My co-workers’ approach marked the ‘no-harm, no-foul’ limit for bringing insane conspiracy theories into the workplace. Anything beyond a casual chat might have violated some serious ‘red lines’ with Human Resources.

Suggesting that innocent children or nightclub patrons somehow ‘deserved’ to be murdered would have surely started a vicious office brawl. I’m quote glad that the two fellows correctly interpreted the social cues and dropped their line of argument.

Case in point: On 19th February, Benjamin A. Kelly, District Secretary for State Representative Shawn Harrison of Florida’s 63rd District, e-mailed a Tampa Bay Times reporter alleging that a photo in the Times featuring students from MSD High School didn’t show real students but rather professional ‘crisis actors.’ His exact statement was: ‘Both kids in the picture are not students here but actors that travel to various crisis when they happen.’ The newspaper asked Kelly’s boss if he endorsed his aide’s statements. Harrison immediately placed Kelly on leave to investigate and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran fired Kelly for his statements shortly thereafter.

From my perspective, the most interesting part of the story isn’t that Mr. Kelly was brazen enough to discuss his fringe conspiracy theory with a member of the media while officially representing his employer. I’m much more interested in the process that the Florida House had to follow to investigate Kelly’s unprofessional actions and then terminate him before he could inflict more harm on their organisation’s already-savaged reputation. That they did the right thing seems self-evident. I’m both surprised and pleased that they managed it. Now, I’m curious as to how they managed it.

Consider how your organization would react if one of your team members was caught making wild conspiracy theory statements to the media the way that Benjamin Kelly did:

  • Do the regulations that govern personnel behaviour sufficiently address actions like Kelly’s?
  • Does your security department have evidence capture protocols and experience liaising with local, state, and national law enforcement to turn over admissible evidence?
  • Does your organisation’s Acceptable Use Policy or Code of Conduct give you the authority that you need to contain, suspend, and/or terminate the offender?
  • Do your human resources and/or public relations staffs have the training and the confidence needed to recognize such behaviour as misconduct and the protocols to let then take swift corrective action?
  • Does your leadership echelon have the confidence and will to take decisive action before the situation becomes uncontainable?

Most American business leaders don’t lack confidence; if anything, they have s surfeit of it. What they tend to lack is the willpower required to take immediate action under ambiguous or shifting conditions. Anyone can be confident when the risks are low and consequences and mild.  

The answers to all of these questions should be ‘yes’ … but are they? Are you sure? If you’re not 100% confident, now’s the time to assess your readiness. My advice is to consult with whatever passes for a ‘crisis management team’ and run through ‘sand table’ exercises on both a Kelly-like and a Richards-like scenario. Make sure that your organisation has everything that it’ll need to react quickly, comprehensively, and decisively to a rogue worker’s statements and/or actions. Correct any tool, protocol, or key stakeholder that you discover might be insufficient now – before it’s needed.

This isn’t an abstract business school scenario; it’s a problem that other organisations are having to grapple for real with on very short notice. If you’re not prepared for it to manifest in your organisation today, your reluctance to prepare for it could cost you your brand.

Conspiracy theorists used to be viewed largely as harmless eccentrics. They were played for laughs in popular culture for decades. Now … the situation has evolved. To be fair, remember that many people who believe in popular conspiracy theories are mostly harmless. Unfortunately, a small but significant minority of believers have learned that’s its acceptable to violate both the law and society’s limits on acceptable conduct and have started rationalizing acts of harassment, intimidation, and even more violence.

This mass-murder-and-wild-delusion cycle appears to be America’s absurd new normal. Since we seem Hell-bent as a country on not doing anything to prevent it from happening again, it’s becomes incumbent on each and every business to get prepared to deal with the fallout. You’re right if you believe it shouldn’t be this way … but here we are.


[1] Kasky referred to his harassers as ‘NRA (National Rifle Association) cultists.’ Given some of the outrageous statements made about the Florida massacre by NRA head Wayne LaPierre at Thursday’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Kasky’s characterization seems on-point.

[2] Take ten minutes and devour Collins’ article. It helps put this senselessness into perspective.

Title Allusions: None this week, out of respect for the fallen.


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.