Why Terrorists Are Worse Than Guns

Gun violence may kill more people, but terrorism still merits the more aggressive response.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, several commentators have asked why we label some acts of mass violence "terrorism" while others are considered ordinary crime. Why do we treat those two so very differently, despite the latter being responsible for far more American deaths?

The Terror Label

Author and attorney Glenn Greenwald wonders why we are so quick to label Boston "terrorism":

Over the last two years, the US has witnessed at least three other episodes of mass, indiscriminate violence that killed more people than the Boston bombings did: the Tucson shooting by Jared Loughner in which 19 people (including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords) were shot, six of whom died; the Aurora movie theater shooting by James Holmes in which 70 people were shot, 12 of whom died; and the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting by Adam Lanza in which 26 people (20 of whom were children) were shot and killed.

It's a fair question. From both a legal and national security perspective, whether Boston turns out to be a terrorist attack ultimately depends on the motivations of the perpetrators. If the brothers Tsarnaev acted to gain attention for a political cause or to further "political or social objectives," they're terrorists. Otherwise, they're merely mass murderers.

Presumably, though, the reason we jumped so quickly to label the act "terrorism" has to do with both the location and the means. The shooting sprees in question were at random locations and clearly one-offs; that is, there was no reason to believe Loughner, Holmes, or Lanza were going to strike additional targets if given the opportunity. The Tsarnaevs, by contrast, chose an iconic target with a massive media presence.

Yes, as Greenwald and others have suggested, we tend to consider bombs more terror-inducing than guns. Then again, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, used a gun, as did John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the Beltway snipers. We considered them terrorists. Why? Because there was political motivation and because, in the latter case, the episodic nature of the attack seemed designed to induce terror, not merely to kill.

Hasan, Muhammad and Malvo had another thing in common with the Tsarnaevs: they were Muslim. Greenwald suspects that's why we're so quick to label them terrorists. But, while it would be foolish to dismiss post-9/11 anti-Islamic bias as a contributing factor, the fact of the matter is that we were calling the Beltway snipers "terrorists" long before their identities or religious beliefs were known. And Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was deemed a terrorist years earlier.

Gun Violence vs. Terrorism

Guardian columnist Gary Younge was among many to contrast the immediate calls for action after the bombing Monday afternoon with the Senate's failure "to pass even the most anaemic gun control measures in response to the Newtown shootings" on Wednesday. But there were all sorts of calls to impose restrictions on guns, do something about violent video games, and even overhaul our mental-health system in the wake of Newtown—just as there are every time there's a highly publicized incident.

Century Foundation fellow Michael Cohen makes a more salient point, in wondering why authorities shut Boston down, ordering citizens to "shelter-in-place" while a search for a 19-year-old fugitive took place, while "more than 30,000 Americans die in gun violence every year (compared to the 17 who died last year in terrorist attacks)." He concludes, reasonably enough, that we're treating the two threats disproportionately.

But it's not really that difficult to fathom why. The Boston Marathon bombing was a rare, specific event, and it was perfectly reasonable to fear that those behind it would kill others if not apprehended. Because authorities were able to accomplish that so quickly, the nation's attention was rapt. In contrast, most of us have long since dismissed the background threat of a follow-on al Qaeda threat as something that we live with without much thought.

Cohen also notes that there have been occasions of spree violence—he cites the 2002 DC sniper murders and this year's spree by disgruntled cop Christopher Dorner in Los Angeles—that were handled without a lockdown. But while the Boston shelter-in-place order was an overreaction, the situations were different in ways other than our fear of "terrorism." Indeed, the DC snipers were terrorists and, it turned out, Muslim. We didn't lock down the area because the DC metropolitan area and the shootings themselves were dispersed over a wide geographic footprint. Boston is tiny by comparison. Furthermore, as much as we international-security types scoff as the absurdity of federal law calling ordinary explosive devices "weapons of mass destruction," there's not much doubt that a bomb can potentially kill far more people than a bullet—or even a single gun.

The Lone Wolf vs. Organized Terrorism