The Conversation

New Yorker: What if the Bombers Had Used Guns?

Writing at the New Yorker, John Cassidy wonders aloud if the reaction to the Boston bombing would have been much different if the Tsarnaev brothers had used rifles instead of bombs. He writes, "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?"

Cassidy then attempts to argue that the victims of the Newtown shooting got short shrift in comparison to the Boston bombing because of the weapons used. Here's the comparison he sets up [Emphasis added]:

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. (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.

Cassidy comes awfully close to minimizing the damage done by the bombers. Those "crude, homeade" bombs killed 3 and injured more than 200, many of whom lost limbs in the blast. But putting that aside, there is a false comparison being made here? Look at that top paragraph again. With the exception of the final sentence, Cassidy's rundown of Boston is about the manhunt for the people responsible. The horror of the bombing combined with the justifiable fear of the next strike is the reason the manhunt became such a massive, no holds barred effort. And as it turned out, the Tsarnaev brothers were headed to New York to place more bombs when they were killed/captured.

By contrast, Adam Lanza shot himself the moment police entered the building. He was dead.  There was no fear the killer might strike again at another school. No manhunt was necessary. That's why the reaction of authorities was dramatically different, not because guns were involved instead of bombs.

If Cassidy wanted to make a more apt comparison, it would be to the manhunt for the beltway sniper in 2002. In that case you had two men killing innocent people and terrorizing a city for nearly a month with a gun. As with the bombing in Boston, there was a non-stop, multi-agency effort to find the killers. The FBI ran a joint operations center going over every phone tip which came in about the case. Even the Pentagon became involved. The issue wasn't whether they had guns or bombs it was that they would strike again unless they were caught.


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