Violent holiday in Chicago underscores how routine homicide is

Why do we fear terrorism but not gun violence?

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Thought experiment: In an act of terrorism on American soil, four people were killed by a car bomb in Chicago on the 4th of July and an Islamist group claimed responsibility. Now, imagine the press coverage and the political fallout if this happened. It would be wall-to-wall. The president would come to Chicago, the cable networks would be non-stop for weeks and the Washington hearings and tribunals would be scheduled before the smoke cleared.

Reality: Over the long 4th of July weekend, Thursday to Monday morning, 82 people were shot in Chicago and 16 of those people have died, so far. This came despite the addition of 300 extra police on patrol in the most violent neighborhoods.

It’s possible though unlikely you have heard about this. Some papers outside of Chicago had brief accounts. I think CNN has covered it a bit. The New York Times had a story.

But by Tuesday morning, the weekend of violence warranted only a brief story on the Chicago Tribune web site, not prominently displayed. Sixteen people dead and a city yawns and a nation doesn’t much notice.

It’s obvious why.  On Monday night in Chicago, after the official holiday weekend, nine people were shot in Chicago, one of them fatally. 

The Tribune reports:

“The 19-year-old woman was walking down the sidewalk with a group of people in the 2200 block of West 69th Street when someone on a bike approached and shot her about 7:05 p.m., according to police.

The woman was taken in critical condition to John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, where she was pronounced dead, police said. The Cook County medical examiner's office confirmed the death.

No suspects were in custody early this morning in the shooting, which happened in the West Englewood neighborhood.”

In 2012, 507 people died from homicides in Chicago.  The city was proud the number fell to only 435 homicides in 2013, though an investigative report by Chicago magazine claims the figures were lowered partially by bureaucratic and statistical sleight of hand.

“By the administration’s own tally, one person has been killed and five people have been shot, on average, every day this year in Chicago—and that was before the carnage over the Fourth of July weekend,” according to Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics, who is based in Chicago. 

Gun violence is relentless and commonplace.  But it doesn’t affect all groups equally, not by a proverbial long shot. “Nearly all of those killed over the weekend were black or Hispanic men age 35 or younger,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “One was a woman.” 

According to the Justice Department, the rate of homicides by guns for black Americans was 14.9 per 100,000 people and 4 per 100,000 among Hispanics. It was 1.9 per 100,000 for white Americans.

That said, it is also true that the random slaughter of white schoolchildren doesn’t goad the country into action or prolonged outrage either.  Just ask the parents of the Sandy Hook school in Connecticut.

Collectively, we don’t do a lot to prevent gun violence. We do send a lot of people to jail, mostly for drug crimes though. Sometimes a local gun control law is toughened up – and sometimes they are loosened up. Georgia’s new “guns everywhere” law took effect on July 1; it’s probably the most expansive right-to-carry law ever and it does just what its nickname says.

We know all this. Sometimes I think only suckers and nags write about gun violence. Because we know that Americans are numb to gun violence. We know Americans love their guns and are essentially willing to trade high levels of murder (by international comparison) for widespread legal and illegal gun possession. We know that many people believe the Second Amendment contains a right to individual gun ownership.

But answer me this: Why is death by terrorism something we are so terrified of? Why will we sacrifice thousands of soldiers’ lives and spend limitless amounts of money to prevent very, very rare acts of terrorism? Is a death by terrorism more tragic than a death by gang? Why is it considered inappropriate, unpatriotic and rude to ask such questions?

As of yesterday, 6,824 Americans died in Iraq, Afghanistan and some other countries in military operations that had the explicit mission of preventing terrorism. The tally of wounded in action is 52,116. The cost of those wars has been roughly a trillion dollars. The requested budget for the Department of Homeland Security next year is $38.2 billion.

Since 9/11, fatalities in the U.S. from incidents defined as terrorism are extremely rare – less than ten a year on average. And indeed, the two biggest incidents were unorganized gun rampages by American citizens, one at a Sikh temple of Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012 and the other at Ft. Hood in 2009. 

There were 11,078 homicides by firearms in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control

A handful of those murders made the news. None changed our views.

Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for Scripps News. An experienced writer, reporter and author, Meyer was executive producer for the BBC's news services in America, NPR's executive editor and editorial director of CBSNews.com. Meyer also wrote a book on American culture and politics,  "Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium"  (Crown Publishing/Random House, August 2008).

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