The scope of the tragedy continues to unfold in the wake of the terrorist attack on the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Forty-nine people were killed, with approximately the same number wounded. The motivations of the shooter, Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, appear in the early stages of the investigation to be related to the nightclub’s patrons being predominantly gay. We as a nation need to put that aside, along with the politics, and look at this terrorist attack for what it is—an attack on the United States, the deadliest since 9/11.

In terms of food defense, this event is a very important portent of bad things that may be coming our way. The shooter self-identified as being a supporter of ISIS. Whether he had actual contact with ISIS leadership or was directed by ISIS leadership is immaterial. ISIS is here in the U.S. and carried out a military attack by targeting an establishment where food and drink were being sold.

Why is that important? It is important because people congregate in  substantial numbers where food and drink are being served. This makes those places ideal targets for people wishing to do harm. Most people going to get something to eat or drink don’t plan for such events in places considered safe. That makes them vulnerable.

The recent attack by two Palestinian gunmen at a Tel Aviv restaurant, killing four and wounding seven, is another example. Predators will always go where their prey congregate. Food and drink establishments have in fact been the locations of three of the 12 most deadly mass shootings in the U.S. The most recent attack is the largest, but deadly mass shootings took place at Luby’s Cafeteria on Oct. 16, 1991, in Killeen, Texas (23 people killed), and at McDonald’s Restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif., on July 18, 1984 (21 people killed).

Food and drink establishments need to quickly review their security plans if they have them or develop plans if they don’t. They also need to harden their facilities for potential copycat events, which might occur in the next few weeks or months.  The establishments themselves are the first line of defense and therefore must not be solely dependent upon rapid police response. No matter how quickly police respond, they may arrive after a tragedy has unfolded. This is the new reality, a reality we will be dealing with for a long time to come.

By R. A. Norton

Robert A. Norton, PhD., is a professor at Auburn University and a member of the Auburn University Food System Institute’s core faculty. A long-time consultant to federal and state law enforcement agencies, the Department of Defense and industry, he specializes in intelligence analysis, weapons of mass destruction defense and national security. For more information on the topic or for more detailed discussions about specific security related needs, he can be reached at or by phone at (334) 844-7562.