America's Focus on Terrorism Blinds Us To Everyday Violence and Suffering

News & Politics

The Boston Marathon bombing and shootouts with the suspects frightened millions of Americans and turned into one of the biggest media events of the 21st century. But beyond lingering questions of whether the government went too far by shutting down an entire city and whether that might encourage future terrorism, a deeper and darker question remains: why is America’s obsession with evil so selective?

There are all kinds of violent events in America that go unheeded. The British-based Guardian newspaper reported that on the same day as the bombing, 11 people were killed by guns across the U.S. That sad list included a pregnant woman in Dallas allegedly shot by her boyfriend; a 13-year-old who took his own life after being bullied at school; and an off-duty New York City policewoman who killed her husband, her year-old baby, and then committed suicide with her police-issued handgun.

The lists of most violent American trends reveal the mundane shades of evil. There are the most violent cities. There are the murder capitals. There’s domestic violence primarily against women. There are the most dangerous jobs, where injury is common and death far more widespread than from bomb-wielding terrorists—such as at the Texas fertilizer plant that blew up last week and killed at least 14 people and where 270 tons of ammonium nitrate was illegally stored in violation of state and federal law.

What is it about the nature of one form of evil versus another that grips America’s attention, whipping mainstream media into a frenzy and pushing government to pull out the stops in one moment but not in another? Do we respond more to the unexpected rather than to senselessness that continues day by day? 

President Obama and Massachusetts Gov. Duval Patrick praised Bostonians for following law enforcement’s directions, just as they praised the police for their role in tracking the bombers. Patrick told CBS on Sunday that he had no regrets whatsoever about police actions such as shutting down Amtrack service and canceling sporting events. The governor was told that the bombers were fleeing and could randomly target any crowd. That’s why he locked down the region.

Whether the better-safe-than-sorry approach devolved into overreach is a question that cannot be clearly answered. The government never acts like a surgeon when it finds itself in a crisis. The Guardian thought that Bostonians and Americans overreacted and that would encourage terrorists, despite the “heinous” attack.  

“Four people [are] dead and more than 100 wounded, some with shredded and amputated limbs,” wrote correspondent Michael Cohen. “But Londoners, who endured IRA terror for years, might be forgiven for thinking that America over-reacted just a tad to the goings-on in Boston. They're right—and then some. What we saw was a collective freak-out like few that we've seen previously in the United States. It was yet another depressing reminder that more than 11 years after 9/11 Americans still allow themselves to be easily and willingly cowed by the ‘threat’ of terrorism.”

President Obama, speaking at a memorial service last Thursday before the two bombers were killed or captured, said the opposite. “We don’t hunker down. That’s why we don’t cower in fear. We carry on. We race. We strive. We build, and we work, and we love—and we raise our kids to do the same.”  

That’s certainly been the case during other exceptionally violent melees, but not last week in Boston. In 2002, snipers who randomly shot victims targeted the Washington region. But the District of Columbia wasn’t locked down. This past February, a disgruntled Los Angeles police officer went on a multi-day murder spree across southern California leaving four people dead. But no curfew was imposed. Are homemade pipe- and pressure-cooker bombs that much more dangerous than modern guns?          

Any competent mental health professional pays close attention to the stories that people tell themselves about their beliefs and actions. By labeling the bombing as terrorism, the government and mainstream media elevated one exceptionally violent act to a level that is not accorded to the everyday violence that afflicts American society.

Individuals who are no more mentally ill or obsessed than the Boston bombers can carry out mass shootings, but Congress cannot bring itself to pass even the most watered-down gun controls. Industrial accidents can kill a dozen volunteer first responders and destroy a swath of a small rural town, but that’s business as usual—flouting workplace safety laws.

Humanity certainly has dark sides that are expressed in violent rage. But there’s also something very wrong and dark about disregarding everyday violence, just because it’s the rule and not the exception.       

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