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Terror and the USA

On December 14th, 2012, Adam Lanza went on a rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Using his mother's own guns, he shot and killed her in their house, and proceeded to murder twenty children and six staff members at the school where she worked. As first responders closed in, he committed suicide by shooting himself through the head. On April 17th 2013, gun control measures to improve criminal background checks, ban assault rifles, and limit the size of magazines was defeated in the US Senate following heavy lobbying by the National Rifle Association.

Late during the Boston Marathon on April 15th, 2013, two explosive devices were detonated near the finish line of the race. Three people were killed, including an eight year old boy watching his father run in the race, a young restaurant manager, and a Chinese graduate student at Boston University. Hundreds were injured, from superficial cuts to missing limbs. In an unrelated incident, a fire broke out at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Memorial in Boston, causing an evacuation and fears of a simultaneous attack. In the aftermath, amid a massive FBI investigation into the perpetrators, amateur sleuths from Reddit and 4chan incorrectly accused a 17 year old spectator and a missing Brown university student of being involved. The teenager has his picture put up all over the internet, and is afraid to leave his house. The family of the missing student, already devastated with worry, were forced to take down Facebook pages pleading for information, and underwent even more unnecessary trauma thanks to the false identifications.

On April 16th and 17th, 2013, letters laced with the deadly poison ricin were intercepted in Washington DC. One was mailed to a US Senator, and another to the US President Barack Obama. So far, an Elvis impersonator has been detained for mailing the letters, though he was later released without charges amidst evidence that he was being framed.

A fire broke out at the West Fertilizer Company storage and distribution plant near Waco, Texas on April 17th, 2013. As firefighters fought the flames, a massive explosion erupted from the facility, levelling hundreds of buildings in the area and sending up a huge mushroom cloud into the air. At least fifteen people have been killed (mostly firefighters called in after the initial fire), and hundreds are injured. The shock wave from the explosion blew out windows for kilometres around, and the force of the disaster registered 2.1 on the Richter scale. While the incident is not regarded as suspicious, its timing immediately following the Marathon bombing was chilling.

Following a holdup at a local 7-Eleven, a campus disturbance was reported at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, just across the river from Boston, late on April 18th, 2013. MIT Police officer Sean Collier was shot, and later died of his wounds in hospital. A massive manhunt was instigated for brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, believed to have been behind the hold up, the shooting, and the Marathon bombings. It was a night of chaos, with millions around the world following via police radio scanners and social media. Fragmented, conflicting reports of hijackings, gun battles, explosions, and bombs bounced back and forth like lightning. Tamerlan died during the battles in the night, and Boston was practically shut down for a day as police combed the city and its suburbs for his brother. Eventually, Dzhokhar was found heavily injured and hidden in a boat in a backyard. He may face the death penalty for his crimes, and his capture resulted in mass street celebrations in the locked-down city.

Barely an afterthought was the news of a mass shooting in Seattle, Washington on April 22nd. A domestic dispute led to a gunman killing his girlfriend, a neighbour, and two other men before police killed him. The gunman had a valid concealed weapons permit. Such was the week preceding that this news was far overshadowed, and ranked just small headlines on news front pages.

I honestly feel less safe in the US than in Australia. Despite being ensconced behind the greatest arsenal in the history of the world, I find it hard to entirely shake off a sense of insecurity. I'm extra watchful if I'm walking alone at night, or in areas that I do not know well. Not being able to see people's faces or hands on ill-lit streets puts me on edge. I vaguely worry about earthquakes and industrial accidents, even though the likelihood of either is remote.

The issue of guns in the US is particularly upsetting. It may be part of my upbringing in Australia, but I do not believe that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. I want there to be no need for either to have guns in the first place. I want there to be no one sufficiently enraged or desperate to use one. It sickens me that people are capable of murdering twenty children, maiming hundreds, or killing over a domestic dispute. It sickens me that people feel the need to possess high-powered weaponry as a purely defensive measure. The sight of arms or armed guards makes me uneasy, as if their presence suggests a real and present danger. But, while gun control was an incredible success in Australia, but I fear that our precedent is simply incompatible with the expectations of gun rights in the US. Powerful lobby groups aside, I sadly think that mass shootings simply increase the resolve of many Americans to hold onto their guns. You just cannot win when such a culture pervades the people.

Perhaps my impressions of safety in the US are coloured by my arrival experience. Before I had even made it off the airport train in August 2012, someone tried to steal my phone right out of my hand. He did not succeed thanks to the intervention of a complete stranger sitting behind me on the train, who pursued and tackled would-be thief. All of happened as the train pulled into a station in the middle of San Francisco. To this day, I feel tense at that station and in the areas around it, and I'm on guard when I'm riding on the trains. There are streets just blocks away from the city centre that I don't like to walk down.

The United States and Australia are similar in several ways, being relatively young, advanced economies with diverse populations. But the history of the US has been defined by conflict both internal and external: wars to secure the country, its independence, and its ideological identity, and wars to shape the world that we know now. Australia has played but a minor part in these global conflicts, and has not torn itself apart in civil war. In a way, I feel like war is ingrained in the American identity. Its activist (some would call it interfering) streak and superpower status ensures that the United States remains deeply involved in matters of global conflict. Moreover, its history and people demand it.

Seeing the events at Boston was surreal for me. I visited the city just two weeks prior to the Marathon bombings, walking around the Public Library and Copley Square where the bombs exploded, and taking pictures of the Stata Building at MIT where Officer Collier - a good guy with a gun - was killed. I stayed with a friend whom I had met in Australia; when the bombs went off she was having lunch in a cafe just a block away from, and is thankfully safe and sound. Boston is a beautiful city, full of life, history, and pride, and I feel very sad at the terror that has struck at it. And this extends to many parts of the United States. The country is breathtakingly, stunningly beautiful, full of incredible landscapes and cityscapes, wild natures and feats of engineering. In my travels so far I have yet to be disappointed at the sights and sounds. It is also the centre of the academic and industrial universes, the place to be on the cutting edge.

Some have commented (often flippantly) that destruction and death is par for the course in many countries around the world, and that the outcry for Boston was immeasurably overstated given the final toll. But I do not believe that peace and security in one part of the world can be traded for that in another. Boston is not a war zone, and the city is not the site of brutal civil wars or conflicts. It is not a police state with tight security over its people, curfews in the night hours, and restrictions on what one may do. Its people had the fortune to live in what they thought was a safe place. I am sad for those who have the misfortune to land in the dangerous corners of the world, and for the many who pay for it with their lives every day. I wish that these corners were eradicated, and feel ashamed that they still exist. But I do not dismiss what happened in Boston because of them.

Perhaps it's unsurprising that insecurity pervades the richest nation in the world. The United States is a complicated place of contradictions, incredibly wealthy and beautiful, but beset by fear, social problems, and economic inequities. It occupies a unique place in an envious and sometimes hostile world. While it's easy to preach and scoff, in the end it's truly not easy being American. They bear a heavy burden, and pay for it every single day. I'm not sure if I would want to carry that load as well for the rest of my life.

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