In the past week we've seen two on-purpose catastrophes, the cowardly bombings at the Boston Marathon and the cowardly refusal of a minority of U.S. senators to pass an amendment mandating expanded background checks for gun buyers.
These two events, while unrelated, nevertheless demonstrate the nation's conflicted response to violence. We want to capture and punish the criminals who create mayhem, but when we have a chance to prevent or reduce the carnage with common-sense measures, our elected leaders balk.
Just whom are they working for, anyway -- the public that elected them or the gun lobby? If they can't pass even lukewarm reforms that 90 percent of the American public wants, we should stop paying them with our taxes and let them scrape by on the generous bribes -- er, contributions -- from the NRA.
The nation tends to respond differently to events of spectacular destruction, which always get furious attention, versus the drip-drip-drip of daily shootings that are easier to ignore. But if the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut by a disturbed young man wasn't spectacular enough to sustain the Senate's will to act, then voters need to throw the obstructionists out of office.
Terrorism provokes outrage because it kills innocents for twisted political or religious reasons, or just for the thrill of it, and seeks to make everyone afraid. But the number of terror-related deaths in this country, while huge in impact, are few compared to the bodies piling up every month from gun violence. Depending on the source, anywhere from 1,200 to 1,700 gun-related deaths have occurred in this country just since Sandy Hook.
A recall or impeachment of the 46 holdouts, mostly Republicans, who killed the bipartisan compromise measure forged by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is highly unlikely, especially since they didn't break any laws. Yet the Senate naysayers have brought more shame and disgrace on their offices than Bill Clinton ever did. He had sex with an adult intern and lied about it, which was seamy and stupid but hardly lethal; they turned their backs on grieving families across the country who were depending on them to protect other children from the same fate. In a contest of heinous behavior, it's not even close.
Monday's marathon carnage was an outrageous crime that killed three people at the race, including an 8-year-old boy, and injured at least 170 others, some of whom lost limbs. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology officer was killed Thursday night by the fleeing suspects -- ethnic Chechen brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, ages 26 and 19, who reportedly came to the United States legally about 10 years ago with their parents. Police killed the older brother during a shootout early Friday morning and captured the other one late that night after a massive manhunt.
This is what the FBI says about terrorism: "There is no single, universally accepted, definition ... Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as 'the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives' (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85)."
If the Tsarnaev brothers did the deed as officials believe, then they were and are terrorists and killers, pure and simple. But in a response to the nation, President Barack Obama emphasized we're down, not out.
"We may be momentarily knocked off our feet, but we will pick ourselves up. We will keep going. We will finish the race," he tweeted. On Thursday at an interfaith prayer service, he called the attack "personal," and vowed resilience and compassion "in the face of cruelty."
To the marathon runners, he said, "I have no doubt you will run again; your resolve is the greatest rebuke to whoever committed this act." To the bombers, he said, "We will find you."
As for the failure of the background check amendment: "There were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn't do this. It came down to politics."
With Sandy Hook families and Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head, Mr. Obama was as visibly angry as he's ever been in public. He said the NRA "willfully lied" about the legislation, and that "all in all this was a pretty shameful day for Washington but this effort is not over. ... So to change Washington, you, the American people, are going to have to sustain some passion about this. And when necessary, you've got to send the right people to Washington."
Now it seems he's not going to wait for that to happen. On Friday his administration was looking into executive action that would bypass the NRA and the Senate and enact tougher controls.
It shouldn't be necessary for a president to do such a thing. But until our so-called "representative government" remembers who it really represents, someone has to step in and remind them. It's called leadership. If Congress won't exhibit any, then Mr. Obama will take the lead.
Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1610).