Ancient Lessons on Security

By Dialogo
October 27, 2010

A saying of the ancient strategist Sun-tzu, written over 2,500 years ago, already proclaimed that the Art of War teaches us to rely not on the probability of the enemy not coming, but on our readiness to receive him and inflict heavier casualties on him. Sun-tzu warned us not to rely on the probability of the enemy not attacking, but instead, to put our best efforts into making our position as invulnerable as possible to his onset.

A while ago now, following the day-to-day evolution of our public safety, I noticed how much our professionals are distancing themselves from basic teachings like those of the Chinese general, as well as – with the most stupefying excuses – dangerously neglecting elementary prerequisites for the physical security of facilities.

Some of the severe reverses currently suffered by the Brazilian security forces are due to the fact that, in trying to “reinvent the wheel,” we forget that, in the security business, some technical-philosophical matters are usually timeless. At most, they take on some contemporary coloration, without, however, radically modifying their essence.

For many years, generations of Brazilian police officers were trained and retired with the belief that just being representatives of the law was sufficient to infuse fear, or as we used to say, “respect” in criminals. Unfortunately, those times are long past, and there is not the slightest indication that they can return. For a while now, criminals have been demonstrating total contempt for the agents of authority, making attempts on police officers’ lives in the most unexpected places.

In Rio de Janeiro, officers on duty have been killed on busy downtown streets, on overpasses, in daylight. In our line of business, it is true that we must try to learn from the examples of others, but unfortunately, sometimes we do not need to go very far to witness conduct that does nothing to protect the safety of the officers on duty and that, on the contrary, blatantly exposes them and makes them vulnerable.

Security professionals (whether police officers or not) must necessarily be prudent, must have studied and learned their limitations, must have thought about the possibility of adverse reactions, and therefore, cannot let down their guard. It would not be a light matter to discard the idea that “each case is unique,” and my goal, in a short article, is not (and could not be) to judge those who have suffered misfortunes (even to the point of dying in confrontation with criminals) and label them as incompetent.

Whoever works in the security area must get used to expecting the unexpected. He must never underestimate the ability of his opponents, for they are used to attacking without warning. What is the use of privileged information if it does not make it in timely manner to those who would make good use of it?

Nowadays it is fashionable to talk about Police Intelligence, and extraordinary efforts have really been made toward creating a doctrine, spreading it, and implementing it, for it is an essential activity and means to good police work, at all levels. Thinking about intelligence, we are once more led to cite Sun-tzu’s teachings: “Know your enemies”! Such advice, in fact, describes a typical intelligence activity. To identify all the members of such adverse groups is difficult, but to get to know their resources and to study their record of activities is not a “seven-headed hydra.”

The available resources may be estimated on the basis of what has been learned by the police or by information collected from a wide variety of sources. A record of activities makes it possible to understand the modus operandi, and if you know how the enemy normally acts, you may find it easier to make preparations against him.

The great and curious contradiction is that we refer to INTELLIGENCE as if it were the great “silver bullet,” the great solution to almost all our public-safety problems, and we forget that we, the men on the frontlines, must also act with intelligence. Regardless of the direction of our institutions, the courses of action determined by our leaders, or the opinion of our colleagues who believe that there will be no surprises, we must have the inner commitment that we will always act shrewdly.

Twenty-five centuries ago, the Chinese general used to say that whoever underestimated his enemies would be captured by them. Nowadays, when the enemy has no interest in taking prisoners in order to enslave them, the great risk is – as we see – to underestimate our opponents and die at their hands.

We live today in a time when criminals, as they lose to the police areas that they once controlled, are moving to disturb the civilian population directly, by acting just about anywhere, denying civilians a sense of safety. In the same way, they will attack the police officers who represent state authority. Unfortunately, however great the horror displayed by society, regrettable incidents, including the deaths of police officers, will still recur. The success of the police response rests on the combination of equipment, good tactics, and discipline.

It is a fact that the solution for reducing violence in our big cities is to attack its causes, using public funds seriously and responsibly, promoting a better distribution of income, creating more jobs, and providing a better education for our young people and children.

However, until all these important medium-term and long-term social measures have been consolidated, it is up to the police to deal with the actions of violent criminals. The fight against crime in the big cities of Brazil will indeed require a great deal of sacrifice from the population and its security forces, in which case all our attention should be turned to the risks and details of this important work. We must not be neglectful; after all, it is true that not even the most Zen of Buddhists or the Brahma Kumaris meditate with their eyes shut …

*VINÍCIUS DOMINGUES CAVALCANTE is a security consultant and a member of the security service of the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Legislature.