Thursday, August 9, 2012

Framing and the rights we prioritize

Updated again to give you some stats on what you are actually more likely to be harmed from other than a terrorist attack. Updated at the end.

I tweeted a Conor Friedersdorf post yesterday in which he tries to explain why the Sikh Temple shooting hasn't gotten the same level of cover the Aurora shooting did. I didn't post anything about it here because I thought Conor said all that needed to be said. In relation to that issue, I wanted to flag this post by Steve Coll discussing the Sikh Temple event amongst the larger issue of terrorism and violence in our country.

The Oak Creek murders reflect upon another neglected subject: the surprising pattern of terrorism in America since September 11th. In partnership with a team of researchers at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Policy, some of my colleagues at the New America Foundation collated and analyzed three hundred and two cases of domestic terrorism during the decade after the September 11th attacks. The numbers do not correspond with the public’s fear or understanding.

The entire decade-long domestic death toll from terrorism (that is, where a political or ideological motive was apparent) was thirty. By comparison, the rate of annual deaths from mass shootings by non-ideological deranged killers—such as the gunman who attacked moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, last month—runs more than thirty times higher (on average, about a hundred deaths each year). In all, there are about fifteen thousand murders in America each year.

Of the three hundred domestic-terrorism cases studied, about a quarter arose from anti-government extremists, white supremacists, or terrorists animated by bias against another religion. And all of the most frightening cases—involving chemical, biological, and radiological materials—arose from right-wing extremists or anarchists. None arose from Islamist militancy.

In response to the terrible events of 9/11, the gov't has started two wars, spied on Americans without warrants, arrested, detained, and tortured Americans without due process, and now kills Americans without due process. We continue these policies that take away our rights despite the numbers cited above. Yet we do basically nothing to deter the kinds of shootings that kill far many more people.

Half the country screams bloody murder at the thought of limiting their right to have guns. While that same half of the country gleefully gives away their rights because they fear a bunch of brown people. And the rest of the country turns a blind eye to gross violation of rights their own party has enforced (killing citizens without due process).

Part of it is what Conor describes in his post. That most certainly describes the difference in media coverage between the Sikh Temple and Aurora shootings. But on a more general level, I think people's reaction to violence is affected by the way in which it's framed. 9/11 was massive in scale. Columbine, OKC, and Aurora were fairly large in scale. Acts of violence on those scales are rare, which is why the media covers them so aggressively.

Whereas the typical shooting is much smaller in scale, involving one or a few people. As the numbers show, those types of situations are pretty common in this country. And the media just doesn't cover common stories aggressively. I think they don't do so because the public tunes out such common stories.

If the aggregate number of people who were killed by guns in a year in the US were all killed on the same day or within a small frame of time I think people would react much differently. They would better understand the scale and impact gun violence has on people and the country and would probably be more willing to restrict rights for the sake of security, just as they do with 'terrorism'.

Update: Check out this link that shows the probabilities that you will be harmed by certain events. Basically, there's a lot more dangerous stuff out there than terrorists.

Update: Here's a funny list of differences between white terrorists and other terrorists from Juan Cole:

1. White terrorists are called “gunmen.” What does that even mean? A person with a gun? Wouldn’t that be, like, everyone in the US? Other terrorists are called, like, “terrorists.”

2. White terrorists are “troubled loners.” Other terrorists are always suspected of being part of a global plot, even when they are obviously troubled loners.

3. Doing a study on the danger of white terrorists at the Department of Homeland Security will get you sidelined by angry white Congressmen. Doing studies on other kinds of terrorists is a guaranteed promotion.

4. The family of a white terrorist is interviewed, weeping as they wonder where he went wrong. The families of other terrorists are almost never interviewed.

5. White terrorists are part of a “fringe.” Other terrorists are apparently mainstream.

6. White terrorists are random events, like tornadoes. Other terrorists are long-running conspiracies.

7. White terrorists are never called “white.” But other terrorists are given ethnic affiliations.

8. Nobody thinks white terrorists are typical of white people. But other terrorists are considered paragons of their societies.

9. White terrorists are alcoholics, addicts or mentally ill. Other terrorists are apparently clean-living and perfectly sane.

10. There is nothing you can do about white terrorists. Gun control won’t stop them. No policy you could make, no government program, could possibly have an impact on them. But hundreds of billions of dollars must be spent on police and on the Department of Defense, and on TSA, which must virtually strip search 60 million people a year, to deal with other terrorists.

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