US should fear its gun laws more than terrorism

The Boston Marathon bombs triggered an overreaction that contrasts with the lethargy over much more deadly threats

By Michael Cohen  /  The Observer

Tue, Apr 23, 2013 - Page 9

The thriving metropolis of Boston was turned into a ghost town on Friday last week. 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 canceled — 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, several with shredded and amputated limbs.

However, Londoners, who endured the Irish Republican Army (IRA) terror threats for years, might be forgiven for thinking that the US overreacted just a bit to the goings-on in Boston. They are right — and then some.

What we saw was a collective freak-out like few that we have ever seen in the US. It was yet another depressing reminder that more than 11 years after Sept. 11, 2001, Americans still allow themselves to be easily and willingly cowed by the “threat” of terrorism.

After all, it is not as if this is the first time that homicidal killers have been on the loose in a major city in the US.

In 2002, Washington was terrorized by two roving snipers, who randomly shot and killed 10 people.

In February, a disgruntled police officer, Christopher Dorner, murdered four people over several days in Los Angeles. In neither case was Los Angeles or Washington put on lockdown mode, perhaps because neither of these sprees was branded with that magically evocative and seemingly terrifying word for Americans — terrorism.

To be sure, public officials in Boston appeared to be acting out of an abundance of caution. And it is appropriate for Boston residents to be asked to take precautions or keep their eyes open.

However, by letting one fugitive terrorist shut down a major US 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 US, terrorize its population and disrupt public order, here is 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 alleged terrorist on his boat.

In a few regards, there is a positive spin on what happened — it is 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 US’ 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 is something quite fitting about the fact that the Boston freak-out happened in the same week the US 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 percent of Americans, and even though 56 out of 100 senators voted in favor 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 a US 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).

What makes US gun violence so particularly horrifying is how often it happens. After the massacre of 20 kindergartners in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, millions of Americans began to take greater notice of the threat from gun violence. Yet since then, the daily carnage that guns produce has continued unabated.

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 far less 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 Sept. 11, 2001, 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 the US Congress to impose a mild, commonsense restriction on gun purchasers.

It is not just firearms that produce such legislative inaction. Last week, a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, which had not 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 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, evildoers, etc.

However, 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.