Americans will never fear everyday gun violence like they do terrorism

Well regulated militiaOne they view as the cost of living in a free society, the other as war.

“Not that the events weren’t shocking and brutal,” concedes Scott Atran at Foreign Policy about the Boston Marathon bombing. But

… this law enforcement and media response, of course, is part of the overall U.S. reaction to terrorism since 9/11, when perhaps never in history have so few, armed with so few means, caused so much fear in so many. Indeed, as with the anarchists a century ago, last week’s response is precisely the outsized reaction that sponsors of terrorism have always counted on in order to terrorize. … Yet, despite the fact that the probability of [anyone] in the United States … being killed by a terrorist bomb is vastly smaller than being killed by an unregistered handgun … U.S. politicians and the public seem likely to continue to support uncritically the extravagant measures associated with an irrational policy of “zero tolerance” for terrorism, as opposed to much-more-than-zero tolerance for nearly all other threats of violence. Given the millions of dollars already spent on the Boston bombing investigation and the trillions that the national response to terrorism has cost in little more than a decade, the public deserves a more reasoned response.

The author’s points are indisputable. But he misses the point. Why exactly do we demonstrate “‘zero tolerance’ for terrorism, as opposed to much-more-than-zero tolerance for nearly all other threats of violence”? In fact, it’s a false equivalency. A terrorist act wreaked on American soil by a foreign faction is essentially an act of war seen as a threat to the sovereignty of the state. Indeed, in light of the number killed on 9/11,  it was the equivalent of a one-day battle — if a wildly successful surprise attack — like the days of yore.

It’s true that “nearly all other threats of violence” comprise a broad range of events from domestic terrorism, such as the Oklahoma City bombing,  to mass shootings, such as Virginia Tech, Newtown, et al, ad nauseam, to everyday murder. (American gun deaths are projected to outnumber traffic fatalities by 2015.) Needless to say, they vastly outnumber those killed by foreign terrorism in the United States. But they don’t threaten the “American way of life” except to the extent to which they provide a rationale for inroads into civil liberties, though arguably much less of one than foreign terrorist acts.

In fact, to many Americans, domestic killing affects their way of life only to the extent that especially outrageous examples such as Sandy Hook Elementary School threaten Americans’ “gun rights.”

In the end, one can’t help but wonder if it’s a perverse point of pride to many Americans that, in recent years, foreign forces, on domestic soil or overseas, kill less of us than we do ourselves. In other words, if we want to kill our own, it’s our business.

5 replies »

  1. I think there’s much more here than this. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think it’s the threat against “our way of life” that makes terrorism so scary, but our level of adaptation to different threats and perceived level of control.

    Take, for instance, people who are scared to death to fly on commercial airlines, only to use much-more-dangerous modes of transportation, like automobiles, to get where they need to go. It’s very clear that the odds of death or serious injury are much higher in an automobile than on a commercial aircraft, but this fails to convince these people. First off, they are adapted to automobile travel. They do it all the time. They know that they see very few injury accidents while doing it. And they feel they have some measure, or even complete, control over such an event happening in their own lives.

    An aircraft crash, on the other hand, is not something they’ve seen except on television, and that was horrific. They imagine themselves strapped into a seat for their remaining minutes of life as the aircraft plunges toward the earth, and it terrifies the living daylights out of them. Little experience with flying. No control over results. Unreasoning fear.

    People know others who own guns. They know they’ve lived around people with guns all their lives. Very, very few of them have ever encountered a gun death in person, and the news rarely shows an actual shootout with guns. But terrorist attacks are different. They are not everyday occurrences, and the media shows horrific images over and over again. And one has some control over getting popped by a gun if one just stays the hell out of bad neighborhoods and threatening situations. But what about a bomb that goes off at the local Piggly Wiggly, huh?

    We fear that with which we have little experience much more than that with which we have great experience. At least usually. And we hate feeling we have little or no control.

  2. This post was really thought provoking. I suspect most gun owners want the option to shoot someone, even if they have no intention of ever exercising that option. It’s probably comforting to them.

    • “most gun owners want the option to shoot someone” Agreed. Guns are so ergonomic these days, too, they beg to be used.