Claire McCaskill: Why Aren’t We Calling Sandy Hook Terror?

Janet Napolitano is testifying before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, purportedly on the budget. Not surprisingly, she’s getting a ton of questions about the Boston Marathon attack and immigration.

But in a smart series of questions that will undoubtedly be controversial, Claire McCaskill challenged Napolitano to explain why we so quickly called Boston a terrorist attack, but wouldn’t call Sandy Hook a terrorist attack. Noting that we still don’t know the motive behind either attack, McCaskill asked (these are my immediate transcriptions),

Other than weapon, is there any difference between Sandy Hook and Boston?

[snip]

We are so quick to call Boston terror, why aren’t we calling man w/high capacity magazine a terrorist?

[snip]

As I look at it w/eyes of prosecutor, I find it troubling that one is treated to cause so much more fear than other.

[snip]

It’s possible both had same motive, just one chose military weapon, the other chose homemade explosive.

It’s a provocative, but necessary question. The crime of terrorism relies on having a political motive. In both these attacks, we don’t know motive. But two days after Boston, we’re treating it as terrorism, while the attack that killed 20 children in their school still isn’t called such.

My inclination would be to call neither terrorism. McCaskill is right that the term just serves to generate fear.

But I’m glad she asked the question.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

7 replies
  1. lefty665 says:

    Where does O’s ordering of drone and other strikes fall? These strikes have killed more innocents than all domestic mass murders since 1/20/09.

    These strikes have clear political motive, use military weapons, and have killed U.S. citizens, including children. Do the Nobel Peace Prize or “look forward (ever forward), don’t look back” grant immunity, or could these murders be terrorism too?

  2. jerryy says:

    Now that some of the initial hysteria from the media reporting is over, it does not seem this horrible event is much different than the Sandy Hook tragedy or the others we have had in recent times. The victims suffering through this are still victims caught up in something they did not ask for and I cannot understand why they have had to endure it.

    To call this terrorism as in violence against people in general inorder to have political repercussions seems off. The facts that have been reported do not fit facts that have been reported.

    I hope this crime is solved correctly and quickly.

    I am not sure how much speculation you want to allow especially at this time when anything could seem callous. It just seems like this violence was intended to strike at one of the observers watching the race at the finish line. There were just two bombs fairly close together at the finish, as I understand things. Were this a political message, there would have been some kind of statement, or there would have been more bombs, or very directly these would have been placed at the start of the race when there was a mass of people. No one can predict when or even if a participant wil finish. So it does seem this is violence used agaisnt a person watching the race, and like so many other tragedies, others get hurt as well.

  3. scribe says:

    There’s a whole lot packed up in McCaskill’s little aside, and it would probably take a book to do it at length. Let me go for something a little shorter.

    A couple weeks after the shootings at Sandy Hook, and in a couple places, people tried to start that meme. One of the more prominent examples was that of a Mr. Phillip Davis, who wrote into Maine’s Kennebec Journal proposing that the NRA be designated a terrorist organiation and treated as such. http://www.kjonline.com/opinion/call-and-treat-nra-as-a-terrorist-organization_2013-01-09.html

    You do not want to be Mr. Davis. Aside from the fact that politicians of all stripes ran like hell from his position and condemned him for lumping millions of law-abiding citizens with both a certifiable murdering nutcase (Adam Lanza) and the likes of every other designated terrorist organization, the private citizens’ condemnations were even more strident. I suspect he’s thinking about selling and moving, but I could be wrong on that.

    McCaskill’s point behind bringing this up was twofold. Directly, it was to make it palatable to talk in these terms about the NRA in specific and gun ownership in general. More subtly, it was to further the ultimate objective of all gun-control legislation: to monopolize guns ownership and use in the hands of society’s elites. While Chairman Mao articulated it concisely saying “power comes from the barrel of a gun”, that truism has been recognized throughout history by both regular people and the power-hungry. We’ve seen both the effects of information asymmetry (see, e.g., just about every post EW has put up about information asymmetry re Gitmo, drones, OLC memos and anything else) and, in the case of Bloomberg’s violent response to OWS, violence asymmetry.

    It should be no surprise that Bloomberg is one of the biggest proponents of gun control out there, ever. He is and has long been a CEO who brooks neither resistance nor opposition and uses whatever methods are at hand to destroy both the resistance and the resistors. You don’t get to make yourself both a multi-billionaire and Mayor of New York without being a ruthless head-breaker. He understands and uses power to achieve his own ends.

    Look back to the Declaration and the Constitution. Although the Declaration’s existence should be evidence enough to end the discussion, the core of the right asserted was not just of people having the inalienable right to self-governance (particularly when the politicians running things were grinding them into dust) but also the right to throw off politicians and (implicitly) systems that were grinding them and their inalienable, God-given freedoms under their heel. Following upon that, the Constitution stood a good chance of not being ratified without Virginia, and Virginia (with some serious Jeffersonian radicals leading the charge) was not about to ratify without the Bill of Rights.

    Now, imagine what America would look like if the only Constitution it had was the one John Brennan took his oath of office using – the one without a Bill of Rights. I suspect it would have devolved into a dictatorship within the first 50 years, followed by various insurrections (supportable because of the vast tracts of undeveloped and unsettled land would allow insurgents to disappear) tearing it apart such that by the middle of the 19th century a substantial part of the country would have been taken back into the fold by Britain and other Euro powers would have been squabbling over the rest.

    People don’t want to admit it, but the knowledge of average Joes and Janes having guns in their closets and attics does tend to keep politicians honest. Or at least from going too far over toward indulging themselves in authoritarianism.

    The sales pitch for gun control is one of “eliminating [gun] violence”. It’s a fallacy for two basic reasons. First, and unlike the OPP officer in Mr. Davis’ letter (go back and read the link…), every gun control effort that comes up in America has a huge exception for cops and other law enforcement officers. (FWIW, that’s why the ex-cop in California who started hunting cops and their families earlier this year before being cornered and burned to death in a mountain cabin, was able to get banned-in-California assault weapons. Cali’s law exempted law enforcement officers from the ban.) In other words, cops – in the service of politicians – and politicians – in the service of the political-contributor class – will have the capacity for violence (guns) while ordinary folks will not.

    You saw how that worked out in Bloomberg’s New York during OWS. The cops and the politicians running them had no qualms about going extra-violent on the demonstrators, either to get some jollies or to try to get the demonstrators to react (e.g., by pawing the women). And they had no qualms about turning the pepper spray on the demonstrators, too. Recall, too, that when OWS spread to London, there were not-insignificant calls that the demonstrators be hauled out and shot.

    England, in case you were wondering, has gun laws even stricter than NYC.

    If the elites feel safe, they will try to get away with more. It’s been that way since forever.

    The second part of the fallacy supporting gun control and its sales pitch is that somehow taking guns out of private hands will result in the end of violence, assaults and deaths. This video (especially at about 0:45) says it exceptionally well. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hq8WdROWpAc One time I agree with the speaker.

    The simple fact of the matter is that, so long as there have been people, there has been violence. Two kids squabbling over a toy or something, whailing away on each other. Two teenagers fighting over a girl. Two nations fighting at the behest of their politicans over land, or for one to take land from the other. Violence is as human as anything can be and people have been fighting and killing each other with anything that comes to hand. (As an aside, I think a second’s reasoning and contemplation will tell most people they’d prefer dying by gunshot to dying by, say, the sequelae of an axe-fight.)

    No politician is going to stop violence. In fact, the only thing that gives an American politician credibility is how readily he will resort to and use violence. Indeed, think about this for a second: to be taken seriously as a candidate for President, that candidate has to persuade Serious People – the contributing class and the political machers in his/her party – that he/she is willing to immolate tens of millions of people (in foreign countries, so they don’t really count) whose only offense is being resident in a political system that somehow stands in the way of American capitalism. Until the terrorists came along, our big focus for half a century was on turning the Soviet Union and the eastern half of Europe into a smoking, radioactive wasteland.

    These are the people you believe when they tell you they’ll stop the violence?

    Politicans tout how ready they are to execute people deemed criminals – perhaps the ultimate in violence: planned, choreographed, staged, witnessed and judicially sanctioned premeditated killing. IF a pol isn’t willing to off some schlub, he’s too soft for the job.

    And when the same people not-too-soft-for-the-job come along and tell you they’ll end violence, you believe them?

    Puhleeze.

    Finally, McCaskill is making the argument that, maybe, if we take the military-style weapons out of people’s hands (but leave them in the cops’, of course) it’s going to dial down the violence. Or something.

    At best, this is an argument that cosmetics will change mens’ hearts away from violence – i.e., stupidity. More to the point, it’s both a reinforcement of violence asymmetry (the cops and military get the really powerful guns and regular folks don’t) and the idea that government gets to pick and choose what you can own.

    Cosmetics? Yes. Most of the time when the kinds of bans MCaskill is leading to come up, they look to ban nasty- and aggressive-looking features – pistol-grips, bayonet lugs (when was the last time someone charged with a fixed bayonet, anyway?), flash suppressors, large magazines. Pure cosmetics.

    And when you try to limit magazine capacity, people who want to shoot will go out and get multiples of the smaller mags. When one is proficient, one can shoot quickly with just about anything – I know a guy who shoots a lever-action rifle (like the western cowboys used) very quickly and for high scores in competitions. I’ve seen him have 5 empties in the air at the same time and hit all 5 targets.

    And, for that matter, what is a military-style weapon? A large percentage of basic bolt-action rifles are based on the Mauser 98 action, which was the standard bolt-action rifle for all armies (except the British, French and Soviet) through the end of WWII. The US’ 1903 Springfield was so close to the Mauser 98 that Mauser sued for patent infringement and got a settlement. The famous Winchester 94 lever action – possibly the most common deer rifle in the US – started off life in the 1890s as a military rifle for the US.

    Are those military weapons within McCaskill’s definition? I suspect the answer depends on which audience she’s talking to.

    The only thing that will stop violence is for people to change their hearts to be non-violent. Style matters for naught.

    I’ve said enough.

  4. Larry Nocella says:

    This is interesting but only to a point. Would anything change if the word terrorism was used? No. People use different words to mean the same thing all the time.

    If we had to select a single word and that will dictate the government response, then I could see continuing this discussion. Meaning, if once it’s learned that the Boston attack was terror with a political end, that could lead to policy changes, if it’s a lone madman, then maybe a different approach. Otherwise, what word you call it, if they’re in the same ballpark, why complain?

    I love words too, but I humbly submit you’re giving them perhaps a bit too much weight – words are abstract, imperfect tools. I disagree that this is a “necessary question” as you state in your well-thought out post.

    Anyway, all the best to you. Peace.

    Larry Nocella

  5. dakine01 says:

    The easy (fallacious) answer is because Sandy Hook was a WM. If/when the bomber is ID’d as a WM, look for the terrorist label to go away

  6. please says:

    Glen gives a really good portrait of why the term is so unclear:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/16/boston-marathon-explosions-notes-reactions

    Larry, especially if you happen to be a regular reader here, but words are incredibly important. Words over and over in theater of “War on Terror” have served to confound people, obscure otherwise self evident truths, and distort thinking.

    For example, the UN itself has failed to come to an agreement on even the definition of what terrorism is.

    The term does more than just instill or spread fear. Its has become a focal point around which narratives imbibed with racism, exclusion, power, and privilege have coalesced.

  7. scribe says:

    @please: The word also allows the government to do things they might want to do, but can’t, unless the magic word of terrorism gets applied to whatever the government decides is terrorism.

    Indefinite detention, torture, extrajudicial killings – directly or by remote control, seizures of property without recourse, vilification, you name it. All the atrocities we’ve seen over the last decade plus can be unleashed on whomever the government decides is a “terrorist”.

    So, words count.

    I got a bit of a laugh at Obama and his pursed-lip petulance on TV, railing against the Senate voting down his gun control bill. He stands there, wrapping himself in the dead children of Sandy Hook, all the while murdering children overseas by remote control. But, angry politicians have a way of doing egregious things.

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