Monday, April 22, 2013

Why do we freak out about terrorism?

From The Guardian (UK):
The thriving metropolis of Boston was turned into a ghost town on Friday. Nearly a million Bostonians were asked to stay in their homes – and willingly complied. Schools were closed; business shuttered; trains, subways and roads were empty; usually busy streets eerily resembled a post-apocalyptic movie set; even baseball games and cultural events were cancelled – all in response to a 19-year-old fugitive, who was on foot and clearly identified by the news media.

The actions allegedly committed by the Boston marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, were heinous. Four people dead and more than 100 wounded, some with shredded and amputated limbs.

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. ...

To be sure, public officials in Boston appeared to be acting out of an abundance of caution. And it's appropriate for Boston residents to be asked to take precautions or keep their eyes open. But by letting one fugitive terrorist shut down a major American city, Boston not only bowed to outsize and irrational fears, but sent a dangerous message to every would-be terrorist – if you want to wreak havoc in the United States, intimidate its population and disrupt public order, here's your instruction booklet.

Putting aside the economic and psychological cost, the lockdown also prevented an early capture of the alleged bomber, who was discovered after Bostonians were given the all clear and a Watertown man wandered into his backyard for a cigarette and found a bleeding terrorist on his boat.

The thing is, this is exactly what terrorism is designed to do. But why does it work so spectacularly well on us Americans? Why do we make such great victims?

Weak people turn to terrorism because they simply have no effective way to attack their enemies (or perceived enemies, at least). Terrorism is the weapon of the impotent. It's designed to provoke a reaction that's completely out of proportion to the event itself. That's the whole point.

Now, true, in this case we didn't overreact as badly as we did after 9/11. Starting two wars (one against a completely innocent country, which had no connection to the attacks whatsoever), torturing prisoners of war, and creating a nightmare experience for air travelers - those, among other things, were all horrendous overreactions. Al-Qaeda must have been overjoyed at their success.

But it still seems odd, especially given our unconcern about other, much more serious, threats:
In some regards, there is a positive spin on this – it's a reflection of how little Americans have to worry about terrorism. A population such as London during the IRA bombings or Israel during the second intifada or Baghdad, pretty much every day, becomes inured to random political violence. Americans who have such little experience of terrorism, relatively speaking, are more primed to overreact – and assume the absolute worst when it comes to the threat of a terror attack. It is as if somehow in the American imagination, every terrorist is a not just a mortal threat, but is a deadly combination of Jason Bourne and James Bond.

If only Americans reacted the same way to the actual threats that exist in their country. There's something quite fitting and ironic about the fact that the Boston freak-out happened in the same week the Senate blocked consideration of a gun control bill that would have strengthened background checks for potential buyers. Even though this reform is supported by more than 90% of Americans, and even though 56 out of 100 senators voted in favour of it, the Republican minority prevented even a vote from being held on the bill because it would have allegedly violated the second amendment rights of "law-abiding Americans".

So for those of you keeping score at home – locking down an American city: a proper reaction to the threat from one terrorist. A background check to prevent criminals or those with mental illness from purchasing guns: a dastardly attack on civil liberties. All of this would be almost darkly comic if not for the fact that more Americans will die needlessly as a result. Already, more than 30,000 Americans die in gun violence every year (compared to the 17 who died last year in terrorist attacks). ...

The same day of the marathon bombing in Boston, 11 Americans were murdered by guns. The pregnant Breshauna Jackson was killed in Dallas, allegedly by her boyfriend. In Richmond, California, James Tucker III was shot and killed while riding his bicycle – assailants unknown. Nigel Hardy, a 13-year-old boy in Palmdale, California, who was being bullied in school, took his own life. He used the gun that his father kept at home. And in Brooklyn, New York, an off-duty police officer used her department-issued Glock 9mm handgun to kill herself, her boyfriend and her one-year old child.

At the same time that investigators were in the midst of a high-profile manhunt for the marathon bombers that ended on Friday evening, 38 more Americans – with little fanfare – died from gun violence. One was a 22-year old resident of Boston. They are a tiny percentage of the 3,531 Americans killed by guns in the past four months – a total that surpasses the number of Americans who died on 9/11 and is one fewer than the number of US soldiers who lost their lives in combat operations in Iraq. Yet, none of this daily violence was considered urgent enough to motivate Congress to impose a mild, commonsense restriction on gun purchasers.

It's not just firearms that produce such legislative inaction. Last week, a fertiliser plant in West, Texas, which hasn't been inspected by federal regulators since 1985, exploded, killing 14 people and injuring countless others. Yet many Republicans want to cut further the funding for the agency (OSHA) that is responsible for such reviews. The vast majority of Americans die from one of four ailments – cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease – and yet Republicans have held three dozen votes to repeal Obamacare, which expands healthcare coverage to 30 million Americans.

It is a surreal and difficult-to-explain dynamic. Americans seemingly place an inordinate fear on violence that is random and unexplainable and can be blamed on "others" – jihadists, terrorists, evil-doers etc. But the lurking dangers all around us – the guns, our unhealthy diets, the workplaces that kill 14 Americans every single day – these are just accepted as part of life, the price of freedom, if you will. And so the violence goes, with more Americans dying preventable deaths. But hey, look on the bright side – we got those sons of bitches who blew up the marathon.

Yes, partly, it's because we have so little experience with terrorism, while gun violence is commonplace. But a lot of it is the media, too. Terrorism is dramatic. Sadly, most gun violence is just... ordinary.

On television, terrorists are master criminals, barely kept at bay each week through the desperate actions of American heroes (and a great deal of luck). We seem less and less able to distinguish fantasy from reality, and super-villains are well established in American fiction, so in our imaginations, one wounded 19-year-old is a huge threat to everyone.

And let's face it, we like having enemies, especially powerful enemies. I remember when the Soviet Union collapsed, and it looked for awhile like America wouldn't have any significant enemies. Right-wingers seemed to be in a state of panic, desperate for an enemy, any enemy (but preferably one to justify lots of military spending). Diseases just aren't the same.

I don't know. I certainly don't mean to minimize the horror of randomly bombing innocent people in  Boston. But when it comes to our response, it might just be that hysteria is addicting. We seem to be in a permanent state of hysteria these days, over almost anything.

I've often wondered if we Americans have become a nation of cowards, but maybe we've just become a nation of fear addicts.

PS. This was another link from Jim Harris. Again, my thanks!


AJ said...

I agree with this article in The Guardian. I don't watch live TV so I wasn't exposed but friends tell me there was 24-hour coverage of...nothing. Lots of speculation and reporters filling up space when the stations could have gone back to business as usual and come back when there was something to report. Then, another fertilizer plant in Texas explodes. I lived there for 20+ years. In my town, the government decided to build a new project and bought land right next to the refinery. Now the poor people are sick all the time with lung diseases. Homes, schools, and nursing homes were built next to a fertilizer plant in West, Texas; not uncommon. No protests. No media expose'. No activists descending on the companies. This is too depressing.

m1nks said...

At the time of this Bombing I did something I don't often do now - I didn't watch Rachel Maddow. I didn't watch her for two days. Because all there was, was 'coverage' of the bombing and I just thought 'how much coverage can one country do of one small bombing?'

It was ridiculous. The same endless repetition of the same non news. There was still other stuff going on in both your country and the world folks. Hows about you do you job and cover it.

WCG said...

Ann, I'd been meaning to post the image here, which really drives home the insanity of lax zoning laws in this case.

It's not just Texas, either. I hope this is a wake up call for small towns across America.

WCG said...

M1nks, when I was a kid, you had to wait for the evening news, and then you'd get the whole day boiled down to a half hour (more like 20 minutes) of content.

Now, with 24-hour news networks, they have to fill the time with something. Naturally enough, they leap to the most dramatic events, even if they don't have anything to say.