What if the Tsarnaev’s had used assault weapons instead of crude bombs?

Really interesting counter-factual think-piece from John Cassidy:

Here’s a little mental experiment. Imagine, for a moment, that the Tsarnaev brothers, instead of packing a couple of pressure cookers loaded with nails and explosives into their backpacks a week ago Monday, had stuffed inside their coats two assault rifles—Bushmaster AR-15s, say, of the type that Adam Lanza used in Newtown. What would have been different?

Well, for one thing, the brothers would probably have killed a lot more than three people at the marathon. AR-15s can fire up to forty-five rounds a minute, and at close range they can tear apart a human body. If the Tsarnaevs had started firing near the finish line, they might easily have killed dozens of spectators and runners before fleeing or being shot by the police…

Set off in a public space a couple of crude, homemade bombs that you appear to have made using a recipe on the Web, and the state will make you Public Enemy Number One. To insure that you are caught and punished, there are virtually no lengths to which the authorities won’t go. They’ll assemble a multi-agency task force overnight, calling on some of the enormous investments in hardware, intelligence, and manpower that have been made since 9/11. They’ll haul in anybody who might be remotely connected to the crime scene, and, if necessary, shut down an entire city. Once you’re caught, they’ll interview you in your hospital bed without reading you your legal rights and then charge you with using W.M.D.s. If you weren’t born in this country, there will even be talk about changing the immigration laws.

If you systematically shoot a classroom full of defenseless six-year-olds and blow off your own head, things proceed rather differently. To be sure, you, or your memory, will be hated and vilified. But the political system, in hock to the N.R.A., will classify you as a nut whose deadly actions have few or no policy implications.  [emphases mine] (With the demise of the gun-control legislation, that’s what it did with Adam Lanza.) Life and politics will go on as normal. The President will probably visit the scene of your outrage and say consoling things to the families of your victims. He’ll mean what he says, but he won’t be able to do much about it, and nobody will ask why the F.B.I. or the C.I.A. didn’t realize you were such a menace to society and lock you up preëmptively. Crazed shooters, after all, are something we’ve grown used to.

Because we have become inured to deaths from shootings, and because of the association of guns and liberty in the minds of many Americans—an association assiduously promoted by the gun lobby—the political system no longer responds to gun deaths. Terrorist acts, on the other hand, even ones masterminded by Mutt and Jeff from Cambridge rather than Osama and K.S.M. from Tora Bora, still have the power to spook the nation and swing the entire U.S. government into action.

Wow good points.  The whole piece is a great reflection on how our national collective psyche responds so differently to different forms of violence.  Too bad we don’t take gun violence more seriously.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to What if the Tsarnaev’s had used assault weapons instead of crude bombs?

  1. Alex says:

    I think the major difference isn’t one of policy or culture but of human psychology. When a gunman attacks a crowd, there’s very little question who that person is — if the person isn’t already dead, the wheels of justice move very quickly.

    By contrast, a bomber is anonymous (suicide bombers aside). A bomb without a known perpetrator creates fear that riles up the populace. (The term is overused, but it’s why we call it terrorism.) Add to that the fact that a bomb creates a large visual impact, especially when blown up in public — the media runs images of the carnage of the Boston blast, but we don’t see any blood and guts in the usual mass shooting.

    Add to that this fear of foreign elements, and I can see why people overreact. It’s horrible for policy outcomes, but there you have it.

    • itchy says:

      I agree. If Lanza had escaped and been on the loose, the entire state of Connecticut would have shut down, and citizens would be wielding pitchforks and/or the same weapons Lanza used.

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