WASHINGTON - The nation demonstrated again last week how resolute it can be when threatened by murderous terrorists -- and how helpless when ordered to heel by smug lobbyists for the gun industry.
Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's deadly rampage through the Boston area provoked not fear but defiance. Even before one brother was killed and the other captured, the city was impatient to get back to normal -- eager to show the world that unspeakable violence might shock, sadden and enrage, but would never intimidate. "Sweet Caroline," the perennial eighth-inning singalong at Fenway Park, became an unlikely anthem of unity and resistance.
The Obama administration decided Monday to charge the younger Tsarnaev, in custody at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, under criminal statutes rather than as an "enemy combatant." Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and some others will disapprove, but this is really an issue of semantics. No one has argued for kid gloves and leniency.
There is also the unanswered question of whether the Tsarnaev brothers had contact with some terrorist organization or acted alone. I have no doubt that authorities will find out. No stone will be unturned, not just in Cambridge and Watertown but in the remote vastness of Chechnya and Dagestan as well. The brothers' relatives and acquaintances will be interviewed, their movements traced, their Internet habits minutely examined for any possible clue.
Can the Tsarnaevs' motive be described as "Islamist," and would that be in a religious or cultural sense? When Russian security officials flagged Tamerlan Tsarnaev for scrutiny, did the FBI drop the ball? Are there telltale patterns of behavior that hint at dangerous self-radicalization? Or is this tragedy more like Columbine, an unfathomable orgy of death?
It may be, in the end, that there simply was no way that authorities could have anticipated and prevented the bombing of the Boston Marathon. But rest assured that we will move heaven and earth looking for answers. Since the 9/11 attacks, we have demonstrated that when alienated young men who are foreign-born and Muslim kill innocents, we will do anything in our power to keep such atrocities from happening again.
Shamefully, however, we have also shown that when alienated young men who are not foreign-born or Muslim do the same, we are powerless.
It is inescapably ironic that while Boston was under siege last week, the Senate was busy rejecting a measure that would have mandated near-universal background checks for gun purchases nationwide -- legislation prompted by the massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults last December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Gun violence costs 30,000 lives in this country each year. Other steps proposed after Newtown -- such as reimposition of bans on military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines -- were deemed too much to hope for. But expanded background checks once had the support of the powerful National Rifle Association, and experts considered them potentially the most effective way of keeping deadly weapons out of the wrong hands. They might not have prevented the last senseless mass shooting, but might prevent the next.
The NRA changed its position on background checks to "never" and dug in its heels, however, threatening to punish senators who voted in favor. And so, despite polls showing that up to 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could not muster the 60 votes needed to move the legislation forward.
Some critics say President Obama didn't push hard enough for action on gun violence, didn't twist enough arms or slap enough backs. Some say Reid could have done more to keep red-state Democrats in the fold. Some say the barrier arises from the architecture of the Constitution, which gives Montana's 1 million residents the same number of senators as California's 38 million.
There are lots of explanations for the failure of legislation on background checks, but no good reasons.
Imagine what our laws would be like if the nation were losing 30,000 lives each year to Islamist terrorism. Do you think for one minute that a young man named, say, Abdullah or Hussein -- or Tsarnaev -- would be able to go to a gun show and buy a semiautomatic AR-15 knockoff with a 30-round clip, no questions asked? Would the NRA still argue, as it essentially does now, that those thousands of lives are the price we must pay for the Second Amendment?
When we say "never again" about terrorism, we really mean it. When we say those words about gun violence, obviously we really don't.
Robinson is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post.