Do We Give Too Much Attention to Terrorist Attacks?


    I’m wondering whether it was appropriate to focus so much of our national attention on the Boston Marathon bombings.

    True, some of our fellow citizens were killed and many more were injured.  But during that week an explosion at a fertilizer factory in Texas killed more people, and injured more people, than were killed or injured in Boston.  And yet, the Texas disaster probably received less than one percent of the Boston coverage.  

    Maybe the difference was because what happened in Texas was an accident, even if caused by negligence, whereas the Boston bombing was a deliberate attack not just on the victims but on all of us.  

    Terrorism is a real concern in our era. An attack on a major public festivity like the Boston Marathon is not trivial. Still, the question remains: Should the nation allow its consciousness to be so dominated by every terrorist attack?

    All this attention rewards the terrorists, and is an incentive to others who may be lurking in the wings.  We’re telling the world  – in which there is no shortage of potential suicide bombers who would like to make as big a splash as those two young Chechen immigrants — that if you want to completely capture the attention of the world’s leading nation for days on end, just come and blow up a few of us.

    It’s a strategic mistake to magnify the importance of the damage our enemies can do to us. We’ve seen this before, in 1979-80, when the Iranians held Americans captive.  President Carter made himself hostage as well, curtailing presidential travels. And on television, Nightline was born, with Ted Koppel giving nightly reports about “America Held Hostage.”

    Better, perhaps, to respond to our wounds more stoically.  We are a great nation, and through our history we’ve repeatedly suffered pain and trauma, and we’ve shown that we can endure and triumph despite it all.  As the football coach said to his players about excessive celebration when they get to the end zone, we should act like we’ve been there before.

    Two forces may be driving our nation to pay excessive attention to such attacks.

    First, there are the news media, who are concerned about ratings, not about what the nation needs.  A shooter holed up in the mountains above Los Angeles can get wall-to-wall coverage because cable news can dramatize that kind of event for great ratings. (The disruption of Earth’s climate is hard to display in endless loop video.)

    As a nation, however, we do not want the American dog to be wagged by the media tail.

    A possible second force that could lead to excessive coverage may derive from the administration that reigned at the time of the 9/11 attack. That presidency exploited our national trauma for years, stirring up the people’s fears, even though there was nothing for us to do with our agitation, and continually bidding us to support a “war on terror” with no conceivable end. Fear-mongering was decked out as patriotism and used to make those leaders seem like our protectors, even as they assaulted many of the values and liberties for which our flag is supposed to stand.  

    That precedent, ingrained over the course of seven intense and frightful years, may have created an expectation, a pressure, on subsequent leaders to give any subsequent attack center stage lest they appear lacking in patriotism or insufficiently involved in our protection.

    Sometimes a trauma does warrant being kept in the forefront of our consciousness.  

    There was good reason, for example, to “Remember Pearl Harbor.”  That attack required a nation at peace to transform itself – quickly, dramatically, totally – into a nation engaged in the biggest war in human history.  Millions of men had to be mobilized, the whole economy had to be redirected, and the lives of all Americans had to change in significant ways.

    The focus on the Pearl Harbor attack was not about ratings for news media or patriotic posturing of a commander-in-chief.  It was an event to which we had to respond, as a people, in deep and long-lasting ways.

    The “war on terror” is nothing like that. After the 9/11 attacks, our president told us to go out and shop. We had no need to mobilize as a nation.  We had, and we have, expert people who can deal with such things.  And as a nation, we have plenty of other urgent challenges that need our attention.

    Our attention is a precious resource.  It should be wisely allocated.

    Andy Schmookler, who was recently the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District, is an award-winning author, commentator, and teacher whose books include The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.


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