This post is from The Economist’s American politics column, Lexington’s Notebook
.Bad things can happen even to a good country. That, in essence, is the belief that underlies America’s reaction to the bombs that exploded at the finishing line of the Boston marathon.
At an evening vigil on Boston Common a day after the attack, a crowd of students and locals solemnly sang “America the Beautiful”.
On cable television, leftish pundits murmured about government-hating domestic extremists (ie, please let this bomb make my opponents look bad), while conservatives muttered about Muslim extremism and weak government policies (ditto).
Yet, away from the media din, the country at large seemed in no mood for an argument. And even in Washington, despite the odd bit of partisan finger-pointing, there was no enthusiasm for changing anything, no consensus around the idea that “something must be done”.
Still more remarkably (and less happily), inertia seems to have beaten back even minimal gun-control laws. You might have imagined that after last year’s school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, months of White House calls for action, and even the appearance of several Newtown parents in the Senate on April 17th, the country’s politicians might consider a pitifully modest step: a bipartisan amendment extending background checks to more gun sales, meaning only that existing laws barring bad people from buying guns would be verified more frequently. Yet the measure failed. A well-organised gun lobby was a powerful reason. But enough senators feared that enough American voters would punish them for threatening an individual right to bear arms enshrined in the constitution 221 years ago.
America is not universally conservative in its deep reluctance to change the law. By some counts, 90% of Americans backed tighter background checks on gun sales. It is just that not all backed them very intensely, allowing passionate minorities to thwart change. But after living as a reporter on four continents Lexington is confident that America is distinctively conservative, and that this is strikingly apparent in the country’s responses to violence. Atrocities are deplored, mourned and debated, for sure; but they do not reliably trigger a consensus that society must be remade so that they never happen again.
Witnessing acts of terror, big and small, is a constant of foreign reporting. During Lexington’s years in China, there were hundreds of fatal explosions and bombings, perhaps set by migrant workers denied their rightful pay, despairing farmers robbed of land, embittered lovers or separatists from Xinjiang. Episodes of unusual horror—an apartment-building blast that killed 108 people, or a school explosion in which three dozen children died while assembling fireworks at their desks—prompted national debates, at least online: what kind of society are we building, with what values, Chinese urbanites would ask, when such cruelties accompany our journey to modernity?
In Brussels, just after the July 2005 Tube and bus bombings in London, Lexington watched European colleagues question a British-born EU official about why Britain had been targeted. Was it because Tony Blair’s government had sent troops to Iraq? Perhaps, the Briton growled in reply, you could let my country bury its dead before asking us to take the blame. But his questioners’ tactlessness was representative. In much of western Europe, progress involves embracing a sort of deep-grained passivity towards the rest of the world: to be attacked is to be suspect. You must have done something wrong. And Britain is not immune to this. The supposedly conservative press rushes to examine the national conscience and demand more government action in the wake of any violent outrage.
Americans Will Not Willingly Trade Liberty For Security
America is less inclined to go in for self-flagellation when struck by terror. The pundits on Fox News are more nervous about calling for new rules than their peers at the Daily Mail. The country is not beyond spasms of activity in the wake of acts of war: Pearl Harbour prompted draconian laws and, more recently, the September 2001 attacks triggered a convulsive and deeply un-American response, from Guantánamo Bay to anti-terror laws that menaced constitutional rights. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. Even on the right, where a decade ago the raid on civil liberties by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld et al was seen as a necessary part of the war on terror, they feel like a gross aberration. It is telling that a recent Senate debate on drone strikes focused on the president’s authority to kill American jihadists from the skies. What about those Americans’ rights? Libertarian reflexes are returning.
Sometimes this refusal to interfere seems noble to outsiders, as in Boston; in other instances, such as gun control, it seems deluded and self-harming. But it runs deep. It springs from several things. One is the constitution, with its checks and balances. Seldom was a founding document more focused on making it hard for politicians to change the law at times of national panic. The second is the conservative movement. On the right, faith in the status quo runs deep, rooted in a reluctance to tamper with the secular miracle of the constitutional order as crafted by the Founding Fathers. At times that can be a convenient excuse for a reactionary defence of prejudice or entrenched interests. But not always. Even Democrats and those dedicated to progress know that individual rights weigh heavily.
Indeed, perhaps the underlying reason is that America is suspicious of notions of perfectibility—especially from the state. The idea that horrible events are a sign of a flawed civilisation, or that bad things need addressing with collective constraints, is normally alien to the national psyche. In America, for good and ill, horrors are an unreliable way to force change.
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