With some reflection on the tragedy a week ago at the Boston Marathon, it’s clear America is still deeply scarred by the events of 9/11 over a decade ago. Why is it so clearly obvious to so many Americans that we should label last week’s bombing as a terrorist act, but not the Newtown school shooting? What is our definition of terrorism? Was Newtown not sufficiently terrifying? On the contrary, while many more people were wounded from last week’s bombing, last December’s school shooting saw many more fatalities. On that measure, we should consider the Newtown shooting to be at least on the same level as the Boston Marathon bombing, yet we do not, at least not from a perspective of public safety.
There’s plenty of grieving and an overwhelming outpouring of support in the months after the school shooting in Connecticut, but Newtown is a disturbing symbol of daily gun terror in America. On average we have three Newtown’s every day in this country, with over 80 gun fatalities. That’s over 30,000 gun deaths each year. Almost a million people have died by gun in America since the early days of the Reagan administration. Maybe we need to transplant much of the energy we’ve put into the so-called “war on terrorism,” and apply it to that horrifying truth.
But because this gun violence is spread across all 50 states, our best recent effort was a background check bill that “failed” in the Senate last week. Dozens of gun deaths each day and we do nothing. Even in cases where the shooter lives, we rarely use the word terrorist to describe him. We don’t have calls for suspension of habeas corpus, or delay in reading of Miranda rights. We don’t have congressman saying we should label the shooter as an “enemy combatant.”
So what makes the Boston bombing different? Is it the randomness? Newtown was pretty random, but we know there was at least a connection — the shooter, Adam Lanza had gone to Sandy Hook Elementary as a child. So in that sense, we feel like this act, as horrible as it was, was not random. The marathon bombing, however, seems as random as a crime can get. The bombers did not know their victims, and in fact, could not even predict who the victims would be. Is that the reason we call Boston terrorism and not Newtown? Of course it appears Adam Lanza was indiscriminate in his choice of shooting victims. So is there really a difference?
I do offer another possibility, that the weapon of choice goes a long way towards designating an event as terrorism. And maybe this is not completely disconnected from my above reasoning, since one weapon offers precision and the other does not.
The weapon at Sandy Hook Elementary was an assault rifle, the weapon at the Boston Marathon was a bomb. Is there a possibility that we would never label a tragedy inflected by a gun a terrorist act? And if so, why? Is it because a bomb is an imprecise instrument of destruction, making the crime seem more random? Or is it America’s deep connection to gun ownership for both sport and protection that makes us reluctant to use the term “terrorism” when a gun is the weapon of choice?
Even though fear’s motivation does not always lead to positive change, I believe we’ve gotten too complacent with gun violence in this country. I think the nation might be better equipped to curb our violent tendencies if we could understand why people commit these acts, and why we respond the way we do. Because how we respond can have an impact on stopping the next event.