Michael Cohen: US gun law bigger threat than terrorists

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The Boston bombs led to an over-reaction that contrasts with lethargy over real issues, says Michael Cohen

The thriving metropolis of Boston was turned into a ghost town on Friday. Nearly a million Bostonians were asked to stay in their homes - and willingly complied. Schools were closed; businesses shuttered; trains, subways and roads were empty; usually busy streets eerily resembled a post-apocalyptic movie set; even baseball games and cultural events were cancelled - 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, some with shredded and amputated limbs.

But Londoners, who endured IRA (the Irish Republican Army - the paramilitary group who fought for Northern Irish independence from the UK) terror threats for years, might be forgiven for thinking that America over-reacted just a tad to the goings-on in Boston. They're right - and then some. What we saw was a collective freak-out like few we've ever seen in the United States. It was yet another depressing reminder that more than 11 years after 9/11 Americans still allow themselves to be easily and willingly cowed by the "threat" of terrorism.

After all, it's not as if this is the first time that homicidal killers have been on the loose in a major American city. In 2002, Washington DC was terrorised 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 LA or DC 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's appropriate for Boston residents to be asked to take precautions or keep their eyes open. But by letting one fugitive terrorist shut down a major American city, Boston not only bowed to outsized and irrational fears, but sent a dangerous message to every would-be terrorist - if you want to wreak havoc in the United States, terrorise its population and disrupt public order, here's 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 terrorist on his boat.

In some regards, there is a positive spin on what happened - it's 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 American imagination, every terrorist is not just a mortal threat, but is a deadly combination of Jason Bourne and Bond. If only Americans reacted the same way to the actual threats that exist in their country.

There's something quite fitting about the fact that the Boston freak-out happened in the same week the 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 per cent of Americans, and even though 56 out of 100 senators voted in favour 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 an American 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 at school, took his own life. He used the gun 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 1-year old child.

At the same time that investigators were in the midst of a high-profile manhunt for the marathon bombers, 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 3531 Americans killed by guns in the past four months - a total that surpasses the number of Americans who died on 9/11 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 Congress to impose a mild, commonsense restriction on gun purchasers.

It's not just firearms that produce such legislative inaction. Last week, a fertiliser plant in West, Texas, which hasn't 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, evil-doers etc. But 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.

And so the violence goes on, with more Americans dying preventable deaths. But hey, look on the bright side - we got those sons of bitches who blew up the marathon.

Michael Cohen is author of Live From the Campaign Trail: The Greatest Presidential Speeches of the 20th Century.

Dialogue: Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- Observer

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