Skip to main content

Not all terrorism is equal

By David Rothkopf, Special to CNN
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Wed April 24, 2013
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
updated 12:48 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT