Are Deaths From Terrorism Qualitatively/Morally Different?

Cross-posted at Huffington Post

The establishment approach to counter-terrorism is based on an implicit assumption that there is a fundamental difference between the death and destruction caused by terrorist attacks and that caused by crime, hunger, disease and other such threats.

This unspoken assumption is used to justify the suspension of rules and standards that are employed when dealing with other causes of death and injury. And it explains a disproportionate urgency in contending with a single existential threat over others (global warming, environmental degradation, poverty, gun violence, etc.).

UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2008 says that “every day, on average, more than 26,000 children under the age of five die around the world, mostly from preventable causes.” Would we — should we — suspend basic ethical principles and sidestep the rule of law to address this catastrophe? Do we hear major speeches and breathless news reports about this ongoing tragedy?

MADD tells us that “on average someone is killed by a drunk driver every 40 minutes. In 2007, an estimated 12,998 people died in drunk driving related crashes…” Would we — should we — utilize indefinite detention, torture, and other violations of constitutional principles to solve the problem?

The same holds true for dozens of other threats. For example: “A woman is battered every 8 to 10 seconds in the United States (3-4 million times per year). As many as 17% of adult pregnant women are battered. The number of teenagers that battered during pregnancy may be as high as 21%.” Do we create secret prisons and ‘enhanced’ interrogation tactics to deal with the perpetrators? Should we? Do we obsess about it the way we do about a flu epidemic or a nationally televised song contest?

My point is not that we shouldn’t do everything possible to prevent terrorism and to punish terrorists — it’s that we should do so with no greater urgency and no less adherence to the law than we do other forms of deadly violence and preventable death. And if anything, I’m arguing that we should do more about the problems listed above, not less about terrorism.

I’m sympathetic to the assertion that preventing death from violence should be a top priority, reasoning that “the decision by an individual or group of individuals to destroy or inflict damage on others, to rob them of their freedom, to strip them of their dignity, to dehumanize them, is fundamentally worse than any other mortal threat we face. Violence is an affront to our souls, a stain on our humanity.” Still, I don’t understand why we should have laxer laws and ethics for dealing with one kind of murder over another, simply because the murderer had a different reason to carry out his/her crime. Nor do I comprehend why the terrible things done to people in America and across the globe should elicit less of a focus than terrorism.

Every new day on this lonely planet brings a fresh litany of horrors: children raped and beaten and hacked to death, women abused, people dying of starvation and preventable diseases, innocent people thrown in prison and forgotten, the earth poisoned and polluted.

Over a million people lose their lives to violence and millions more are injured and maimed every year. Death and injury by terrorist attack is no more horrific than a young girl being stoned to death in Somalia (for being raped) or a baby being thrown out of a car window in Florida. We need to handle both issues with the appropriate alarm and with the same sense of justice and fealty to the rule of law. We must do away with the flawed notion that combating terrorism requires a unique set of guidelines — that somehow deaths from terrorism are qualitatively/morally different.

Violence and preventable death in all forms should be our utmost priority and we should do everything we can, within the law and within the parameters of basic decency and morality, to bring an end to them.


UPDATE: Thomas Friedman was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and said we still need “extraordinary measures” to deal with the most extreme terrorist cases. He was referring to individuals who are willing to strap on explosives and blow up innocent civilians. Since this is an argument I’ve heard more than once, let me ask the following: don’t we need extraordinary measures to deal with serial killers, mass murderers, baby torturers, and the like?

Don’t we need extraordinary measures to deal with the fact that millions die of easily preventable illnesses? How about extraordinary measures to feed the millions who starve to death needlessly, their bodies wasting away in slow, agonizing motion?

Again, I return to the basic question, what is it about terrorism that creates such a severe sense of alarm and an overwhelming desire to stop it at all costs – when we lack that very same urgency for far more widespread mortal threats?