This week, when two young men allegedly committed a callous and calculated act of mass violence that resulted in the loss of American lives, we didn’t know right away what caused them to do it.
But many decided, almost immediately, what to call the crimes they committed: terrorism.
When we use the word terrorism to describe events like Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings, we are not just categorizing an act. We are enabling a catalyst that provokes the state into action. Because we called them terror suspects, two men brought the country’s largest metropolitan area to a complete standstill. Because their actions met our benchmark for terrorism, the state responded with no fewer than 20 different law enforcement agencies and more than one-thousand officers. Because a suspected terrorist was arrested in a suburban backyard Friday night, the full force of the federal government will be deployed to bring him to justice. And only days after the attack, that act of terrorism has already begun to influence debate over policy in the U.S. Congress.
But this very same week, we watched the final round of a political tug of war that began with another callous and calculated act of mass violence committed by a young man in Newtown, Connecticut just four months ago. Only the events of that day fell short of the mark for what we call a terrorist act. And the state’s response in this case could most accurately be described as inaction, after a Senate vote that could have reformed gun policy, instead left us pretty much exactly where we started.
It was enough to provoke our ordinarily calm and measured president to lose his cool.
President Obama said on Wednesday, “Everybody talked about how we were going to change something to make sure this didn’t happen again … I’m assuming our expressions of grief and our commitment to do something different to prevent these things from happening are not empty words.”
We need to address why the word that had the most meaning for gun policy this week was “no.”