Terrorism and the Public Imagination

The shooting of nineteen innocent people, including two children, at a Mother's Day celebration in New Orleans yesterday was an act of violence only gaudy enough to hold the nation's attention momentarily. Shortly after the bodies were cleared, the FBI said they "have no indication the shooting was an act of terrorism. 'It’s strictly an act of street violence in New Orleans.'" At that, we were free to let our attention drift. In America, all villainy is not created equal.

A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into radical Islam and become violent. A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into street crime and become violent. A crowd of innocent people attending the Boston marathon are maimed by flying shrapnel from homemade bombs. A crowd of innocent people attending a Mother's Day celebration in New Orleans are maimed by flying bullets. Two public events. Two terrible tragedies. One act of violence becomes a huge news story, transfixing the media's attention for months and drawing outraged proclamations from politicians and pundits. Another act of violence is dismissed as the normal way of the world and quickly forgotten. The victims bleeding on the ground may be forgiven for failing to see the distinction between the two acts. For those on the receiving end, violence is violence. For the rest of us, it is a rhetorical tool, to be deployed when it fits a narrative of American triumphalism. Otherwise it will be forgotten, by everyone except the victims.

Besides countless deaths abroad and a staggering debt at home, the primary legacy of America's "War on Terror" is our profoundly warped sense of the dangers of the world we live in, and of who our "enemies" are. As a rule, the rare violence committed by Muslims, with some political or religious motivation, is "terrorism," and deserving of the attention of the public and of our stern-faced leaders. The far more common and destructive acts of violence committed every single day on the streets of America due to poverty and the drug war and lack of education and simple human viciousness are "street violence," which is treated as some timeless aspect of the human condition. This violence, which kills many more Americans each year than any Muslim terrorist could dream of, is unworthy of our brain space. (Black-on-black crime— whether 19 people shot in New Orleans, or 12 people shot at a Baltimore cookout, or 54 people shot in a single weekend in Chicago— is considered least newsworthy of all.) We shake our heads, perhaps, but we do not allow it to occupy us, if we are fortunate enough not to be touched by it personally. Our leaders may bemoan it, but they do not make it a national priority. The media reports on it, but it does not dwell on it.

The Boston bombing was, undoubtedly, a horrific event, and a big story. We don't call for some exact equivalence in minutes of TV time devoted to each crime event. But no reasonable person can say that the tidal wave of news coverage that accompanied it was a rational and proportional response to its importance for our nation, when taken in the context of "things that might actually hurt you." The average American knows who Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is, but has no idea how the gun crime rate has changed in the past 20 years. (It's gone down. And it still kills far, far more people than 9/11 did, which itself killed hundreds of times more people than the Boston bombing did.) That is not the product of balanced journalism. That is the product of ideology in action.

We do not actually care about "terror" as it is commonly defined. If we did, we would be transfixed by daily handgun homicides, and by the unemployment rate, and by the lack of public health care, and by public schools that are neither safe nor effective— the things that terrorize everyday Americans. We would be more concerned by real auto accidents than by theoretical airplane bombings. We would invest in helping the poor at home, rather than in killing the poor abroad. We would be far more absorbed by violence in Chicago than in Boston, because it is so much more common. Simple math would guide our assessment of life's risks. The reality, of course, is the opposite.

The public has always loved sensational things, and the media has always been happy to serve sensationalism above prudence. But this modern age of Terror That Matters vs. forgettable violence is not simply a matter of ratings. It is a direct outgrowth of a deliberate post-9/11 political strategy to create a world in which the vague specter of "Terrorism" could fill the role of The Big Bad "Other" that had been empty since the end of the Cold War. That strategy was wildly successful. It helped to cow the nation's news media enough to pave the way for the war in Iraq. It made patriotism synonymous with suspicion. And it persists today, in our reflexes that cause us to instinctively and unquestioningly expect an act of violence inspired by Muslim zealotry to mean something more than an act of violence inspired by any other cause.

How do you make a terrorist? You just label him a terrorist. You move your attention away from the things that actually matter in your life, and you focus it on The Terror. You participate in becoming terrorized. You allow a small sliver of violent people to warp your entire society's perspective on reality. And you eventually arrive at a place where it seems perfectly reasonable to forget about children being shot at a Mother's Day party, because our leaders and our media and our minds are still occupied with Muslims with pressure cookers.

There will be more terrorism, because terrorism works. The American imagination can't seem to get enough of it.

[Photo: AP]