Skip to main content

Not all terrorism is equal

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
April 24, 2013 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
Bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15, followed by a manhunt kept the Boston area reeling until the surviving suspect was captured on Friday, April 19. Pictured, the second explosion goes off near the marathon finish line on Monday while smoke from the first bomb still hangs in the air. Here's a look at how the week unfolded: Bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15, followed by a manhunt kept the Boston area reeling until the surviving suspect was captured on Friday, April 19. Pictured, the second explosion goes off near the marathon finish line on Monday while smoke from the first bomb still hangs in the air. Here's a look at how the week unfolded:
HIDE CAPTION
Boston bombings: A week in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
The week in Boston in photos
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf: Reaction to recent disasters shows people in U.S. follow hierarchy of terror
  • He says they care when terrorist is successful, foreign, Islamic and strikes U.S.
  • He says we overlook danger likely to affect us, like Senate inaction on guns, Syria slaughter
  • Rothkopf: Boston made us weigh our priorities in handling terror, such as due process

Editor's note: David Rothkopf writes regularly for CNN.com. He is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Last week offered a grim parade of perspectives on the nature of terror and danger in the United States and in the modern world. The Boston Marathon bombings, the Texas fertilizer plant explosion, the earthquake in China, to name but a few.

But the week also offered a glimpse of the way we have come to understand violent acts that affect us: Here in the United States we observe a hierarchy of terror.

It works like this: The media and seemingly the rest of the U.S. public care most when a terrorist is successful, foreign, Islamic, and thus resonant with what has become the touchstone of our views on terror: 9/11. For such cases, no coverage or government action is too excessive. We care when casualty tolls, as measured in American lives, are high and the villain is easy to point a camera at, easy to fit into our predetermined definition of what a villain is (see point 1.)

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

When the terrorist is a crank or is unsuccessful, we care less. When the terror happens to Iraqis or Syrians or others far from us, we care less. When the terror is not perpetrated by an individual but is perhaps the result of the actions or inactions of a company, a government body, a special interest group or nature, our concern does not approach the level it does when there is a bad guy, a foreign connection, an experience that recalls earlier terror experiences (no matter how tenuous).

There has been an extraordinary panoply of tragedies in the past week on which to test this theory. On Monday we witnessed in horror the attack on the Boston Marathon. Within a day we learned of ricin-laced letters targeting members of the U.S. Senate and later in the week, the president himself. By Wednesday afternoon, the perpetrator in the letter attacks was arrested.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Around 8 p.m. that evening, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas devastated a town of 2,800, killing 14 and injuring 200 others. By Thursday evening, the manhunt for the Boston bombers had resulted in the identification of the two bombers, the gruesome end of one of them and, sadly, the death of another victim, a 26-year-old MIT police officer.

This news rocked us, but it should also have been put into perspective by events elsewhere. The same day as the Boston Marathon attack, scores of ordinary people were killed in coordinated terror bombings across Iraq. On Saturday, an earthquake rocked Sichuan province in China, injuring at least 11,000 people and producing a death toll that at this writing was approaching 200. On Sunday alone the violence that tears daily at Syria left more than 500 people dead, most in a single town.

How the Boston bombing manhunt started
Uncle: Dzhokar put a shame on Chechnyans
'A direct confrontation with evil'

Finally, while America was galvanized by the swift action of authorities in responding to the Boston Marathon attacks, we also saw midweek starkly contrasting government inaction in the face of a much bigger threat: that posed by gun violence in America. More than three times as many Americans will die in gun homicides this year as died on 9/11 and more than 10 times as many will die of gun violence of one sort or another. Yet, the United States Senate demonstrated this week that it does not see this as a problem of any great urgency.

Truly, it appears not all terror is created equal.

But this is not all we've learned about terror this past week. We saw anew that we cannot ever eliminate its threat, but that when cities react calmly and with courage, the impact of attacks can be limited and the goal of the terrorist to produce mayhem can be defeated. And we saw in the well-trained first responders, effective mail screening facilities and impressively swift law enforcement pursuit of wrongdoers that the investment we have made in preparation has paid off.

The Boston attack has also compelled us to consider terror's hidden costs. In debating whether or not to read Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his Miranda rights and in shutting down an entire city in search of a single 19-year-old, we brushed up again against debates that have raged throughout this past decade.

What is a proportional response to terror? When would it be better to treat a threat as a criminal matter to be handled within our basic system of laws and when should it be treated more aggressively—even to the point of suspending basic elements of due process, as in the suggestion by some to treat Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant? Or do we do damage to our national reputation and character as we did in the decade past with the contra-constitutional provisions of the Patriot Act or our actions at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo?

In short, once again we must ask, how much damage are we doing to ourselves in our efforts to stay safe or pursue justice?

Terror and terrorists are real and their stories are compelling, but we ought to remember that by far the biggest threats we face come from elsewhere—from what might be corporate negligence or greed; from natural disasters or the heedless abuse of the environment; from people who find it far too easy to get their hands on guns or from leaders who twist their interpretation of the Constitution to overreact to one threat even while ignoring and exacerbating another.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT