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Americans Will Never Fear Everyday Gun Violence Like They Do Terrorism

May 1, 2013 ·

One they view as the cost of living in a free society, the other as war.

One they view as the cost of living in a free society, the other as war.

Cross-posted from Scholars & Rogues.

"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.