Early in life we are taught the three Rs – Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic – as indispensible to getting on in life.
There are at least another two Three R’s out there to help us navigate a tumultour world.
One of them is the Three R’s of Crisis Communications. Crisis Managers are taught that when a crisis occurs, and the incident is too recent to gather all the facts together, it is important to communicate the Three Rs – Regret, Reason and Remedy.
This is what President Obama practiced when he made his statement after the Boston Marathon explosions. Firstly he expressed Regret by conveying the nation’s sympathy for Boston and the victims and their families.
Secondly, he expressed Reason – why it happened. In this instance neither he nor anyone knows yet the motives of the attack. It looks like a terrorist attack but unless the facts are gathered, verified and analyzed, he could not come to conclusions. In such circumstances it is OK to say that you do not yet know, provided that the information is delivered with the proper authority.
Thirdly, he also expressed Remedy – what he plans to do about it. Here he spoke of his determination to catch and punish the person or people responsible. The BBC article at the end of this posting discussed the merits of such a disciplined approach.
It is useful to bear in mind that in crisis situations, often no matter what you say you will be criticized. Already Obama has been criticized by some for not using the word “terrorism” but he is doing the right thing. If he used the word, and it later turns out that it was perpetrated by a person or persons who are fanatics or crizies rather than ideologues, then he would look very silly indeed. Crisis management is often an exercise in damage limitation so that you do not shoot yourself in the foot and lose control of the situation.
President Obama’s words – swift, solemn and understated – stressed three main points. The nation’s sympathy for Boston. The fact that the motives for the attack were as yet unknown. His determination to catch and punish the person or people responsible.
But what came over more than anything was a frustration that so much is unknown.
Much will be said in the coming days about terrible crimes like this bringing a nation together but they can also divide, and raise questions about leadership.
The truth is that it is difficult for the president to strike the right tone in the very midst of uncertainty. His words, hours after the attack, will have to bear scrutiny in the days, weeks and years to come. The wrong implication or interpretation could come back to haunt him.
He – apparently very deliberately – did not use the word terrorism even though he has been criticised in the past for not being quick enough to use the label.
Indeed he has already been criticised for not using it now, but apparently feels caution and certainty are more important than the barbs of critics – particularly when, to many Americans, the word terrorism is misunderstood to only mean action by foreigners.
Nevertheless, a White House official was quick to stress after the statement that this was being treated as an act of terrorism.
Indeed it does seem fairly obvious that it was an attack deliberately planned to cause death and injury. In most people’s book that is terrorism. But what if the motive wasn’t political, but some other grievance by an individual? This president can be careful with words, and likes to be certain of his facts before making judgements. Some find that irritating. Others just want to make political capital out of any situation.
There will be other questions – about whether intelligence services missed anything, whether security should be higher around the nation, and many more questions that may not yet be obvious.
President Obama will have to balance the firmness and resolution the country expects with his clear desire not to be pushed into snap solutions ahead of clear answers.
Then there is the Three Rs of Terrorism, coined by Louise Richardson in her excellent book that tried to answer the question: What Terrorists Want.
The Three Rs of Terrorism, according to her, are Revenge, Reknown and Reaction.
Terrorists are often people who feel that they have been slighted in life, either by a country, a system or an organization, or society at large. They also usually have a strong sense of right and wrong. Terrorist acts are ways by which such persons seek to wreck revenge on the offending party.
Terrorists also seek Reknown. Not necessarily for themselves but for their organizations. The way to get Reknown is to inflict damage on famous landmarks, people or events, in this case the Boston Marathon.
Then there is Reaction. All acts of terrorism are carried out to provoke a reaction. If the terrorists are lucky they provoke the targeted party to overreact with force or oppressive policies, thereby weakening their enemies and strengthening their causes. When Osama bombed the Twin Towers in 2001 he scored a huge victory when it provoked then US President George W Bush to formulate policies that further alienated the US from the Muslim world, and reinforced the image of the US as being an oppressive and aggressive global dictator. Guantanamo became the icon of all that was wrong about the US’s reaction to the bombing.
Now we have another act of terrorism that is horrific to witness, and while many in the world have understandably condemned the act in the strongest terms, it may be instructive to keep the Three Rs of Terrorism in mind when formulating policies to respond to this act.