A view of a killing

The reaction to the fatal attack on American tourists in Beijing is very different from the U.S. response to the 1996 Atlanta bombing.

Published August 9, 2008 10:00PM (EDT)

What a difference half the globe and a completely different culture and worldview make.

Yahoo's Dan Wenzel has an excellent piece about the reaction of Chinese people in Beijing to the fatal attack on American tourists Saturday at the city's 13th-century Drum Tower.

The person on the street, Wenzel writes, is of course horrified at the apparent random murder-suicide that left Todd Bachman, the father of former U.S. volleyball team member Elizabeth Bachman, dead and his wife, Barbara, critically wounded. The attacker, 47-year-old Tang Yongming, leaped to his death off the tower after stabbing the Bachmans and their Chinese tour guide, who was also seriously injured.

Chinese and international law-enforcement authorities and U.S. embassy officials have all said they believe the Bachmans were not targeted, and that it would not have been immediately apparent to the attacker that the victims were American or part of the U.S. Olympic contingent. The Bachmans' son-in-law is men's indoor volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon.

But Wenzel also found that citizens, like their government, are concerned about how the attacks will reflect on China's international image, which is such a big part of the host country's mission during these games. China is trying to present a good picture to the world. Random street violence is not a part of that picture.

"That person does not represent China," Wenzel quotes one young woman saying in a typical comment.

A bomb exploded at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, killing one and injuring 111. Another person died of a heart attack in the immediate aftermath. Within days, an American, security guard Richard Jewell, emerged as a "person of interest" and was tried and convicted by the media, though he was later completely cleared. It never once occurred to me, or to anyone I know, to think about how the incident would reflect on the United States, my native country.

And it probably reflected the United States better than Saturday's killing reflects on China. Beijing's violent crime rate is reported to be low for a city of its size. The United States? We produce murderous whack jobs by the sackful.

The actual bomber, Eric Rudolph, shares supermax prison space with Ted Kaczynski, Terry Nichols and a host of others, including Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, who as H. Rap Brown in the '60s famously said, "Violence is as American as cherry pie."

We Americans have been hammering China pretty hard for its human-rights record, while many of us tacitly or explicitly give our own country a pass for its own violations, collectively shrugging our shoulders about the Guantánamo gulag and going about our business as though nothing were unusual about our overseas misadventures and occupations.

There's grumbling, especially around liberal quarters like the one you're reading, but the streets aren't exactly burning with the kind of outrage that's being beamed toward China. For all the demands for boycotts of these Olympics, there haven't been many similar suggestions for big American events.

But a street killing, a random act: evidently shocking and disturbing on a national level in China. Such killings are of course shocking and disturbing at the local or personal level anywhere. It's devastating and stunning when someone you know or even know of is attacked and killed, and horrific if it happens to a stranger in your neighborhood. But on a national level? Sad to say, it's business as usual. A killing like the one in Beijing, if it had happened in Cleveland, would not have been news in Chicago if the victims weren't prominent.

What a difference half the globe and a completely different culture and worldview make.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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