Monday, May 13, 2013

What If It Was Terrorism?

Image credit: Aaron Tang/Flickr

A few weeks ago, I'd written about the misuse of the word "terrorism":

In the context of the bombing in Boston last Monday, whether or not it's terrorism depends on the motivations of the bombers, not on whether or not people were frightened by it. That is why I've avoided using the term, and will continue to until such time as the people responsible have been found and tried for what they've done, or until they admit what they've done and explain why in some other circumstance that doesn't involve duress.

Any opinions expressed using the word "terrorism" should, I think, be viewed in that context. Words mean particular things. When people use those words in other ways, then their opinions should be viewed more skeptically.

Word Use: Terrorism

[unless otherwise noted, all links are from original articles]

Today, Gawker's Hamilton Nolan looked at how we view terrorism from a different angle. Suppose the Tsarnaev brothers' actions actually were terrorism, in the proper meaning of that term. What does that say about our reaction to it, relative to Sunday's shooting in New Orleans?

The shooting of nineteen innocent people, including two children, at a Mother's Day celebration in New Orleans yesterday was an act of violence only gaudy enough to hold the nation's attention momentarily. Shortly after the bodies were cleared, the FBI said they "have no indication the shooting was an act of terrorism. 'It’s strictly an act of street violence in New Orleans.'" At that, we were free to let our attention drift. In America, all villainy is not created equal.

Terrorism and the Public Imagination

All too true, I'm afraid. For instance, how many people are up in arms about the mayhem occurring in some of our major cities, that often involves victims who are children under the age of 19? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted back in 2009:

Gang homicide victims were significantly younger than nongang homicide victims in all five cities [that were included in this report] (Table 1). Whereas 27%–42% of the gang homicide victims were aged 15–19 years, only 9%–14% of the nongang homicide victims were in this age group. Approximately 80% of all homicide victims were male in each city; however, Los Angeles, Newark, and Oklahoma City still reported significantly higher proportions of male victims in gang homicide incidents compared with nongang homicide incidents. In Los Angeles and Oakland, a significantly higher proportion of gang victims were Hispanic and, in Oklahoma City, a significantly higher proportion of gang victims were non-Hispanic black compared with nongang victims. In at least three of the five cities, gang homicides were significantly more likely than nongang homicides to occur on a street and involve a firearm (Table 2). More than 90% of gang homicide incidents involved firearms in each city. For nongang homicides, firearms were involved in 57%–86% of the incidents. Gang homicides also were most likely to occur in afternoon/evening hours in the majority of the five cities; however, comparisons were not examined because the data were missing for 23% of nongang homicide incidents. In Los Angeles, Oakland, and Oklahoma City, gang homicides occurred significantly more frequently on weekends than did nongang homicides.

Morbidity and Mortality: Gang Homicides — Five U.S. Cities, 2003–2008

While this information is five years old, I doubt it's gotten that much better since then. Besides, does anyone remember seeing live television feeds all across the country of police shutting down Los Angeles to hunt suspects in a drive-by shooting? Me neither.

I've excerpted the stats from the CDC report's Table 1 below for Los Angeles:

Age group (yrs)No.(%)

Morbidity and Mortality: Gang Homicides — Five U.S. Cities, 2003–2008 (Table 1)

In one major U.S. city alone, almost 400 young people under the age of 25 were killed due to gang-related violence. Of course, L.A.'s gang problem is among the worst, but once again, we see no huge outcry about this. Why is that? Part of the reason is undoubtedly that the victims are mostly poor and non-white, but partly it just seems to be what we expect in some parts of America. Yet it kills far more children than terrorism has in the last decade.

Now that I think of it, there was a much greater stink about the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, wasn't there? In L.A. alone, the equivalent of one Newtown happens every three years or so due to gang-related violence, if we just look at the first line of that table. If all other forms of homicide whose victims that age are included, there's one a year there.

To me, this seems utterly irrational - obsessing about something that has proven to be pretty harmless in comparison to the things that are really killing us, and ignoring or downplaying the things that do, but could be prevented. It's the state of American political discourse these days.

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