(The Root) — If exterminating tens of thousands of people with a nuclear suitcase bomb would rate a 10 on the scale of terrorist acts, the slaughter of more than 3,000 innocent people on Sept. 11 might rank as an 8, and the Oklahoma City explosion that claimed 168 lives might come in at a 5. By that grim reckoning, last week's Boston Marathon bombing with only three fatalities might merit a 3, or barely a ripple.
Horrific as it was, the Boston bombing was the kind of attack that people in less stable parts of the world deal with on a routine basis. But in our case, this relatively minor outrage was enough to shut down an entire major metropolis, disrupt train and air traffic on the East Coast, tie down a force of 9,000 cops and drive the media into a competitive feeding frenzy.
What would have happened if the attack had been carried out by highly trained terrorists instead of a couple of losers who thought they were starring in some lunatic version of Die Hard: With a Vengeance? Did we overreact?
It's not my intent to diminish the gravity of last week's attacks by raising these questions. Indeed, for me, the horror was personal. My stepson is a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose dormitory is located only a stone's throw from where the terrorists allegedly killed campus police Officer Sean Collier, who was honored with a massive funeral on Wednesday.
My son, his wife and my 6-year-old granddaughter reside in Cambridge, close enough to the Watertown border to have heard the gunfight between the fleeing terror suspects and the police that erupted last Thursday night. Friday, while the manhunt for the surviving suspect unfolded, was a day of teeth-grinding tension for my wife and me as we stayed glued to the TV, frantically texting the kids to make sure they were all right.
But now that some calm has been restored, I can't help thinking that political commentator John Cassidy of the New Yorker was on the right track when he asked if the search for the presumed killers justified locking down an entire American city. As he pointed out, "America is a violent place. Practically every day, somewhere in the country, cops are looking for armed and dangerous men who have just killed one or more innocent members of the public. But when a gunman runs amok in East L.A., say, they don't close down Brentwood or Santa Monica. The very thought is absurd."
The sad truth of the matter is that while we can be freaked out by the sort of violence that erupted in Boston last week, we have become so accustomed to other, no less fearful, forms of carnage that they no longer shock us. There are roughly 40 murders a day in this country. Another 90 people or so (pdf) perish daily in car accidents. We may be appalled by these ugly statistics if they cross our minds, but we live with them, going about our business as though nothing had happened, unless someone near and dear to us is involved. I'm not saying it's right, but it happens.
Most of us don't blink an eye when some "ghetto kid" is gunned down. Heck, it might not even make the papers unless a little baby catches a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting — or the shooter is white. But let the alleged perpetrator have a foreign-sounding name and a seemingly political motive, no matter how far-fetched, and we're ready to shift into vigilante mode until the suspects are captured or killed. Proportion? It doesn't matter.
I think Cassidy is right when he suggests that we gave the terrorists what they wanted by overreacting. They wanted to create chaos and attract attention, and they got it. In the great scheme of things, the bombings were negligible events, unusual only because they were unusual. If we're going to be so sidetracked by such a minor affront, isn't there a danger that much more threatening enemies will be tempted to provoke even greater disruptions? Aren't we as capable of absorbing the occasional blows of a few madmen while getting on with our lives as are, say, Israelis and Britons? And if we aren't, do we need to be?
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.