Morbid Comparisons

On Monday, a student at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 of his colleagues and then himself – the most deadly peacetime shooting incident in U.S. history. Many Americans are still grieving about this incident and are puzzled about what would lead a young man to such deadly behavior.

On Wednesday, terrorists killed 312 civilians in Iraq, including 140 civilians in a truck bombing across from the busy Sadriya market in a mostly Shi’ite neighborhood in Baghdad, only hours after Prime Minister al-Maliki committed the Iraqi government to assume responsibility for security by the end of this year. The deaths due to the terrorism in Iraq on Wednesday substantially exceeded the high level of recent terrorism. Terrorists killed 500 Iraqi civilians last week, including 47 civilians killed when a suicide bomber blew up a car at a busy bus station in Karbala.  A truck bomb destroyed a major bridge across the Tigris River, and a suicide bomber penetrated the fortress-like Green Zone, blowing himself up inside the parliament cafeteria and killing one member of parliament. Moreover, last week was not unusual in Iraq. Over the past year, terrorist attacks killed 73 Iraqi civilians per day, including those by the 17 bombings that killed 50 or more civilians. (These estimates are from press releases by Antiwar.com and are based on reports in the Iraqi press).

Most Americans have no comprehension of the level of terrorism in Iraq. Since the American population is 12 times the Iraqi population, the above numbers should be multiplied by 12 to understand the relative magnitude of terrorist activities in the United States and Iraq. At the recent rate of terrorist activities in Iraq, around 876 Americans per day would be killed by terrorist attacks! At that rate, Americans would be experiencing a level of grief and despair beyond our current comprehension.

I draw several lessons from this morbid comparison: There is every reason to improve our understanding of the motives that led to the massacre at Virginia Tech and the responses that might have reduced the number of fatalities, because the victims were Americans and these conditions are more likely to be under our control. At the same time, we should recognize that the presence of a substantial number of American troops in Iraq may have contributed to but, at least, has not reduced the extraordinary rate of terrorism, that more troops or different tactics are not likely to be more successful, and that the several civil wars underway in Iraq are not under our control. We have an important stake in reducing the number of future incidents like that at Virginia Tech and Oklahoma City. It is much less clear that we have an important stake in the outcome of the several civil wars in Iraq.