Are Americans safe from terrorism?
Forty-nine dead in Orlando, five in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge in 2016. Twelve dead in San Bernardino, three at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and nine at a church in Charleston in 2015.
In addition, Americans watched ample news coverage of the attacks in Nice and Brussels in 2016, and two far more deadly attacks in Paris in 2015. Jihadist attacks are up dramatically in Europe, from four in 2014 to 17 in 2015. And, there are even more frequent deaths from terrorism elsewhere in the world, which usually receive less intense coverage in the U.S.
From 2002 through 2015, 80 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks. The 57 killed in 2016 almost equals the total of the previous 13 years. The totality of attacks worldwide can give Americans the impression that they are in escalating danger. An evolution in the way we remember the war dead since Vietnam may be one reason these deaths take up so much space in the public imagination.
In comparison to overall murders and auto accident fatalities, the deaths from terrorism are less significant. In 2013, the most recent year for which there are comprehensive statistics from the FBI, 13,716 Americans were murdered, the equivalent of an Orlando massacre every 32 hours.
In 2014, 32,675 Americans died in car accidents. In other words, the 57 Americans who died in terrorist attacks in 2016 were equal to 0.42 percent of all murders and 0.17 percent of all traffic deaths.
Why do the terrorist attacks get so much media coverage? Why is fear of terrorism a major issue in the current election? A Pew Research Center poll shows 80 percent of Americans see terrorism as “very important” to their vote this year, second only to the economy at 84 percent.
When an unusual and seemingly random tragedy strikes, some may try to give it meaning by relating it to other, more familiar and historic horrors. When the Bush administration decided after 9/11 to label its response a “War on Terror,” it gave the American public a template for understanding future attacks.
The way in which Orlando was labeled and framed by news media and politicians shapes the way in which we think about that horrific event. For those who see it as a mass murder, Orlando is evidence of the dangers of making automatic weapons available for purchase by civilians. However, a significant amount of coverage of Orlando focused on the killer and his professed Islamist extremism. The 49 dead then become something different from the largely anonymous thousands of Americans murdered with guns each year. Instead, the 49 are seen as war casualties and are viewed in ways borrowed from the forms we use to memorialize war dead.
I have studied depictions of war dead in newspapers, textbooks and Medal of Honor citations. During the Vietnam War and since, the U.S. military, textbook publishers and mass media abandoned longstanding conventions of how to present war dead.
New types of heroism in Vietnam
Before Vietnam, the dominant approach was to focus on soldiers’ heroic actions and to describe how they contributed to American victory, and in that way find meaning in their ultimate sacrifice. The media might have named dead soldiers, but little, and more often nothing, was said about their premilitary lives. Their families were ignored or presented as stoic patriots, proud of their husbands’, sons’ or fathers’ sacrifice. The U.S. military awarded medals mainly for acts that led to the deaths of enemy soldiers. The physical and emotional trauma of soldiers who endured combat and of their relatives received little attention in the media, from public officials or in school textbooks. Photos of dead American soldiers, while often graphic, rarely showed faces, and captions omitted the names of those shown.
Portrayals of dead soldiers changed dramatically during the Vietnam War. Medals were increasingly given for saving the lives of fellow American soldiers rather than killing the enemy. Newspaper stories during Vietnam and even more in recent wars paid increasing attention to the grief of dead soldiers’ relatives and to the suffering of the injured.
Prisoners of war first gained attention during Vietnam, and the attention to those held by the enemy intensified during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81. War photos increasingly present soldiers in pain rather than in heroic tableaus and often are used to illustrate lengthy articles on the difficulties those who were wounded or emotionally traumatized face in returning to civilian life. Textbook chapters on victorious wars like World War II as well as Vietnam seek to describe the terror and agony of combat rather than offering narrow depictions of brave and stoic soldiers.
Honor without victory
The new way of presenting soldiers in war grew in part out of efforts to find honor in America’s defeat in Vietnam, and now in the inconclusive and seemingly unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Soldiers aren’t honored for victory because it hasn’t been achieved. Instead, they are praised for saving one another’s lives and for struggling to overcome their personal traumas. As a result, the highest value for soldiers in combat has become minimizing casualties.
The names of each dead soldier are published in newspapers, following the pattern set by the Vietnam War Memorial. The memorial represented that war as a list of names abstracted from any larger narrative and without reference to any purpose for which that war was fought.
When a mass murder is labeled as domestic terrorism, the victims are seen as casualties in the War on Terror. As such, their deaths are visualized and understood through the pattern now established for memorializing soldiers. Thus, each of the dead in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Dallas, San Bernardino and Charleston, and of course those who died on 9/11 and in the few attacks in between 2001 and 2016, were made the subjects of biographical articles in the media. When memorials are built to remember each of these tragedies they will be centered on the names of the dead, as is the case with One World Trade Center that commemorates those lost on 9/11.
This framework makes the attacks more personal to the public because we begin to know personal details about the victims, and therefore think we know the victims and feel their families’ trauma.
A relatively few deaths become manifestations of a war come home to America. Those few highly publicized deaths provoke levels of fear and anger that make it difficult to think clearly about the actual causes of these crimes and conceive of governmental policies that actually might make prevent future attacks.