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Editorial: Internet makes it easy for terrorists to communicate

It’s time to start thinking about the information that courses through the internet, and examining if there is an acceptable way to better monitor, track or restrict messaging that is meant to incite or instigate crimes such as the recent terror attacks in England.

It won’t be an easy task in an open society where First Amendment freedoms are properly cherished, but all of our rights have restrictions. Plainly, communicating with an eye toward committing mass murder is a worse violation than yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

This isn’t a recommendation for any particular action. The issues are complex and will require searching review, public input and technological advancements. But not to pay closer attention to the various means of electronic communication is a kind of surrender to the savages for whom the spilling blood of innocents represents some perverted triumph. It’s irresponsible not to explore the possibilities.

The need should be plain. Although there has been no repeat of the scale of carnage of the September 2001 attacks, terrorists have been able to instill some degree of fear through smaller-scale, seemingly random attacks – on concert halls, bridges and other public areas. In that, it’s fair to observe that terrorists are succeeding in their goal of creating significant global disruption even when their number of victims is limited.

Still, it’s not surprising. Human nature is to recoil from such inhuman brutality, and that precipitates fear and disruption. It’s important to continue to find ways to push back, identify those plotting attacks and make those efforts harder to implement.

Some of that has to do with improved policing. One of the assailants in the latest attack in London was already known to police, for example. Police and intelligence services there need to piece together what they may have overlooked or failed to do that allowed the attack to go forward.

British officials suggest that they do thwart many attacks, which is certainly possible and maybe likely. Those that are prevented may not always be publicized for fear of revealing sources or strategies. In any case, the fact is that authorities have to be right 100 percent of the time and terrorists only have to succeed once to slake their appetite for murder.

But as terror attacks become more of the lone-wolf variety, governments and police agencies will need to adjust their approaches. What worked on large-scale attacks that required significant time and planning to launch may not work when someone decides to drive a truck into pedestrians in a crowded place.

Part of that work is to better understand and interrupt communications, especially those on social media or other parts of the internet. It’s important to society to have the exchange of ideas and information – when it’s accurate, at least – on the web, but also to know when people are using it for criminal purposes, whether that is recruiting or radicalizing new adherents, researching ways to inflict mass casualties or otherwise planning such an attack.

That’s a delicate task in an open society, but it’s one that demands a close look as the standards of civilization are flouted by those for whom civilization holds no attraction.

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