People arrive at a staging center setup by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office after a deadly shooting Monday, June 5, 2017, in Orlando, Florida. A man who was fired from a Florida awning factory in April returned Monday with a gun and methodically killed several people, then took his own life, authorities said. | Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP

Some acts of terror terrify us more than others

SHARE Some acts of terror terrify us more than others
SHARE Some acts of terror terrify us more than others

You are going to be killed this afternoon.

In one of two ways — hypothetically, I rush to point out. This is a thought experiment, not a warning.

The first potential manner of your death: You are walking along Wacker Drive, smiling at the sky, when a truck driven by a religious fanatic veers onto the sidewalk and kills you.

The second: You are at work, calling up a spreadsheet, when a disgruntled former employee bursts in and shoots you.

Both deaths are instantaneous. Which do you prefer?

As the victim, it hardly matters. Either way, you’re just as dead. Your family misses you just as much.


Had you foreknowledge, you would try to spare yourself from either attack with equal vigor. In both cases, you would no doubt avoid the fatal spot — Wacker Drive or the office. You would notify authorities of the peril.

Yet that is not how society approaches such killings. We do not view them with equal attention, equal seriousness. Nor do we try to avoid both situations equally. Attacks such as the one Saturday on the London Bridge that killed seven are acts of terrorism that demand international attention, global grief and brisk action. We demand something be done.

While the shooting Monday at an awning factory in Florida is generally ignored. Five dead, but nothing to be done, or even contemplated. We hardly care what the motive was. Something work-related.

The president immediately seized on the London Bridge attack as justification to bar Muslims from certain countries. Meanwhile, mass shootings, well, they’re just part of the undercurrent of violence that roils the country and we don’t even think about. TV newscasters reporting the awning company murders took pains to emphasize itwasn’t an act of terrorism. The relief was palpable.

Why is this?

It certainly doesn’t have to do with the relative threat. The peril of workplace shootings and domestic murders and assorted rampages is certainly far greater than the threat of terror. For every American killed in an act of terror since 9/11 there are 1,000 killed for a variety of equally flimsy reasons that can’t be connected to Holy War. More people were shot and killed in Chicago over the weekend than died Saturday in the attack in London. Yet one rocked the world, and one doesn’t even ripple Chicago.

So it isn’t the body count that agitates us. It’s the identity of the killer. Some killers are more scary than others, maybe because they can be used to justify prejudices we already have. When Richard Rojas, a Navy vet, plowed a car through Times Square last month, killing a woman and injuring 22 others, we did not suddenly question the role of vets in society; the shooter Monday in Florida was also a vet. But it would be insulting to vets to start toting up the various incidents where vets snapped. So why shouldn’t Muslims feel the same insult that vets would feel if treated similarly?

Northwestern professor Bill Savage calls this “The Logic of Prejudice.”

“If you are a member of a dominant group, you are always an individual,” he explained in a 2015 article on the subject. “If you are a member of a marginal group, your identity is always the group identity as understood by the people who feel prejudice toward that group.”

Bingo. So when an unbalanced Muslim decides to go out in a blaze of glory, blaming his supposed faith, all Muslims are indicted. We believe him when he says he’s acting in accordance with his faith. But a white guy shoots up his office? Happens all the time.

Put another way. When a college student mows down his classmates, the right urges more guns, because the solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. If we applied that thinking tothe problem of Islamic terrorism, we’d start pushing for more Muslim immigration, not less, because the solution to a murder-minded Muslim is a large, well-accepted Islamic community eager to stop him before he ever climbs into that truck.

That would actually make sense. But we don’t think that way. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

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