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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT