Stephen M. Walt

America the skittish

The more I think about the events that transfixed Boston and the nation last week, the more troubled I am. Not by what it says about the dangers we face from violent extremists (aka "terrorism"), but for what it says about our collective inability to keep these dangers in perspective and to respond to them ...

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The more I think about the events that transfixed Boston and the nation last week, the more troubled I am. Not by what it says about the dangers we face from violent extremists (aka "terrorism"), but for what it says about our collective inability to keep these dangers in perspective and to respond to them sensibly. I am beginning to wonder if our political and social system is even capable of a rational response to events of this kind.

Don’t get me wrong: The speed with which the Tsarnaev brothers were identified was remarkable, and citizens at the scene of the bombing showed resolution and humanity in helping the victims. Here in Boston, a great many people worked with energy, courage, and effectiveness to identify and apprehend the perpetrators. And one can only feel a sense of heartache and tragedy when reading about each of the victims, senselessly murdered. 

It’s the larger response to the tragedy that worries me. Although politicians from Barack Obama to Deval Patrick offered up the usual defiant statements about America’s toughness and resilience in the face of terror, the overall reaction to the attacks was anything but. Public officials shut down the entire city of Boston and several surrounding suburbs for most of the day, at an estimated cost of roughly $300 million. What did this accomplish? It showed that a 19 year-old amateur could paralyze an entire American metropolis. As numerous commentators have already pointed out, a city-wide lockdown is not what public officials have done in countless other manhunts, such as the search for rogue cop Christopher Dorner in Los Angeles. And Dorner was a former Navy reservist who had killed four people and who was at least as "armed and dangerous" as the Tsarnaevs. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the attitude that tamed the West, stopped the Third Reich, or won the Cold War.

The media frenzy that accompanied these events was equally disturbing. If terrorists "want a lot of people watching," then that’s precisely what the American media gave them. It is probably unrealistic to hope that today’s hydra-headed and commercially voracious media would respond to an event like this with even a modicum of restraint, but the feeding frenzy that CNN, Fox, and many other outlets engaged in must have been deeply gratifying to America’s enemies. Television networks have learned not to train their cameras on the lunkheads who sometimes jump out of the bleachers and race across a baseball field. In a perfect world, these same organizations would act with similar wisdom when terrorists strike. In particular they would tell the public what it needed to know for the sake of safety, but they would spare us the round-the-clock, obsessive-compulsive, and error-ridden blather that merely gives extremists the publicity they seek.

As Boston shut down and the world watched, fourteen Americans were killed and more than 200 were injured in a factory explosion in Texas. Those people are just as dead as the four victims in Boston, yet their story is already fading to the back pages of the major papers. Meanwhile, the Tsarnaevs remain the Big Story and got profiled on 60 Minutes last night. As I write this, the death toll from last week’s earthquake in China nears 200 — with thousands injured — but it barely rates a  passing glance. And the week before the Marathon bombing, those courageous members of our bought-and-paid-for Senate rejected the very mildest of efforts to reduce the danger from guns, even though firearms kill over 30,000 Americans every year. As Michael Cohen noted in the Guardian, we fear that which scares us, but not the things that actually threaten us.  

What is it about terrorism that terrorizes? Is the disproportionate attention it receives due to its seemingly random nature? The sense that it could strike any of us without warning? That explanation seems unlikely, given that other equally random dangers pose a greater risk. Is it because terrorism is the product of human volition, an explicit act of malevolence? This may have something to do with our tendency to overreact, yet other equally heinous acts don’t seem to transfix society in the same way. 

Or was it the intrusion of an act of wanton violence into an event — the Boston Marathon — that is supposed to be celebratory and fun? Or do we react viscerally to terrorism because such acts force us to think — however reluctantly — about the rage, animosity, and alienation that others feel towards us?

I don’t know. But I cannot help but think that our political leaders have been letting us down ever since 9/11. Instead of teaching Americans that that actual risk from terrorism was minimal, they have kept us disrobing in security lines, obsessing over every bizarre jihadi utterance, and constantly fretting about the Next Big One. An entire industry of "terrorism experts" has arisen to keep us on the edge of our seats, even though many other dangers pose a far greater risk. The result of this obsession has been catastrophic: a failed effort to nation-build in Afghanistan, a wholly misbegotten war in Iraq, and an enormous distraction from any number of other issues — education, climate, energy, the economy — whose mismanagement will ultimately claim far more lives and create far more immiseration than those two misguided and angry young brothers did.

I do not mean to trivialize what happened last week. Four innocent people died, and many more were grievously hurt. Finding the persons responsible was necessary, and I’m as happy as anyone else that they are no longer at large. But the brutal reality of human existence is that it is fragile, and there are no guarantees. Bad things do happen to good people, and it is the task of our political leaders to help us keep our heads even when awful things occur. The grossly disproportionate reaction to the Marathon attacks tells me that our political system is increasingly incapable of weighing dangers intelligently and allocating resources in a sensible manner. Unless we get better at evaluating dangers and responding to them appropriately, we are going to focus too much time and attention on a few bad things because they happen to be particularly vivid, and not enough on the problems on which many more lives ultimately depend.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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