The Single Most Stunning Fact About the Boston Bombing

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AP Photo/Charles Krupa. Source.

Back in January, I shared what I thought at the time was a stunning fact about Iraq in 2012:

On average, there were 18 bombings and 53 violent deaths a week.

…yes, that’s right, 18 bombings, per week, over the course of 52 weeks.  Not in 2006, mind you, but in 2012.

And I got that statistic from this article in The Economist, which also came with this graph:

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My post had — and still has — zero comments.

Not that that is not surprising.  Most of my blog posts have zero comments.  Which is to be expected.  I make no claim whatsoever that anything here is worth reading, nor do I do much to promote this blog.  Whenever I tell people I have a blog, I always add this little caveat, “…not that I suggest you read it.”

But what is stunning — not at all surprising, but stunning nonetheless, if that makes sense, as I’ll explain in a minute — is that there can be 18 bombings in Iraq per week, for an entire year, and that barely registers on the American consciousness… yet an equally senseless, mind-numbingly tragic, horrible and logistically similar event in Boston, becomes a national sensation.

We “feel” for Boston, as a nation, yet a similar event in Iraq hardly makes a headline.

Now, let me state very clearly what I am not saying:

    • The difference in attitudes towards domestic vs. foreign death is surprising.
    • There is anything “normal” about attacks like these.
    • Iraq is similar to America.
    • The White House’s American flag should not fly at half-mast from now until next week.
    • …etc.

None of those are what I’m getting at, and I don’t believe in any of them.

Instead, I’m making just one, simple point:  that there is this phenomenon, moral and psychological, that really does deserve a lot more attention than it gets.  This phenomenon, of caring more that something happened, when it happened to people who are similar to you, than when it happens to “the other.”

It’s a very strange thing, when you think about it, because all of the most popular moral and ethical systems — from utilitarian consequentialism, to Kantian categorical imperatives, to born-again evangelical Christianity, to Buddhism, to Judaism, to atheistic humanism, unthinking intuition, and all the rest — tell us that it does not matter whether a tragedy happens to an 8-year-old American, Iraqi, or Guatemalan.  It is equally a tragedy whether it happens to “us” or “them.”

Accordingly, we all kind of “know” that when an 8-year-old dies in a terrorist attack it is a cruel, tragic, violent event, irrespective of almost any other fact about that 8-year-old.  The mere fact of his nationality, or his physical proximity to my body or my workplace (I have worked in Dorchester, where he grew up, and for two years lived right around the corner from where he died), should have no bearing whatsoever on the magnitude of that tragedy, from a strictly moral standpoint.  I should be equally horrified irrespective of distance or nationality — that is what my (and almost everyone’s) moral/ethical system tells me.

Yet psychologically, we all — all of us – have this dramatically different response to a senseless death when it is an 8-year-old in Boston, vs. when it’s an 8-year-old in Fallujah.  That flies in the face of almost all of our ethical worldviews, yet it is an inescapable psychological phenomenon.

It’s like, we all know that this thing is wrong — this vacillation between caring and uncaring on the basis of arbitrary things like distance and nationality — yet we all do it anyway.

Again, this is not at all surprising, and I don’t mean to “normalize” or minimize Monday’s tragedy in any way.  I only mean to call attention to this fact about our individual and collective moral psychology, because I do believe it bears more thought, more attention, above and beyond all of the (very valid!) things we’re all thinking and feeling and writing about this one, individual event.  Because things like this do happen to other people, all the time, yet we (strangely, from an ethical standpoint) tend not to care at all.

And I don’t mean to restrict that comment to just terrorist attacks.  This is a problem that affects all types of human behavior.

Over the last two weeks people have been sharing a variety of other thoughts about this attack.  I agree with many, if not most of them, and will not repeat them here.  You have probably read them too, and probably agree with them, like me.  But the weight of this one, particular, strange, and (I think) ethically unwarranted characteristic of our moral psychology has for the most part somehow gone unnoticed, just when we and those abroad should be feeling solidarity, and empathy.

That mental defect almost certainly contributed to this attack.  It might even be that had someone overcome it, the Boston Marathon bombings wouldn’t have happened.

In any case, back in January, shortly after I shared that stunning fact about Iraq in 2012 — about the 18 bombings per weekRobert Wright left his position at The Atlantic so he could spend more time to work on writing a book.  He wrote the following in his last post:

The world’s biggest single problem is the failure of people or groups to look at things from the point of view of other people or groups–i.e. to put themselves in the shoes of “the other.”

That is an incredibly strong claim — it’s about the world’s biggest single problem [!] — but it might just be right.  And even if it isn’t right, it isn’t far off.

Robert’s book is about Buddhism, but as he argues in his post, it is relevant to international relations, and I would argue it’s relevant to attacks like this one.

So the single most stunning fact about the Boston bombing, to me, is how much we care about it relative to similar attacks going on in countries all around the world — a significant number of which clearly do have to do with us, our leaders, our shopping habits, and our moral innocence or culpability.  Tonight there are no candle-light vigils for anyone other than the victims of Monday’s attack, as far as I know, and that is something worth thinking about.

If there were one thing I would say you should do with this observation, it’s this:  take the anger, the solidarity, the sympathy, and every other emotion you have about the Boston Marathon bombings, and put it to work.  Use your understanding of this event as a lens for understanding how other people think and feel, when they suffer.  Then, the next time something tragic happens — and there will be more tragedies — do the same thing, again.  If you do — if everyone does — I believe it will not be too long before people start to see things from the point of view of other people or groups.  And on the margin, over time, events like these will become less common.

And that is your speculative, under-thought, late-night insight of the day.


4 comments

  1. Maha Kamal
    Maha Kamal April 17, 2013 at 1:04 AM |

    Well-written post. I think the reason for the difference in reactions is that, an attack in Boston is more news-worthy, like it or not. It’s not something that happens every day. It’s not a war zone. An attack on a marathon is something out of the ordinary. YES, the reaction to the loss of human life should be equal, regardless of geographical boundaries. YES, perhaps the world’s biggest problem is to not look beyond our own myopic selves.


    1. Jacob A. Geller
      Jacob A. Geller April 17, 2013 at 1:14 AM |

      True, though if a similar attack had happened on Monday in a country where such attacks are equally rare, the focus would still be on the attack *here.* There is no good moral/ethical/political reason for that, just in-group bias, a psychological defect.

      (More generally I think that media bias is much more demand-driven than supply-driven, contra what people tend to think about the source of media bias, but that is another story)


  2. Sandra D
    Sandra D April 17, 2013 at 9:09 AM |

    Consider the fact that people feel threatened and are shocked that this sort of catastrophe can happen in our safe and overly protective country. They might think “now anything can happen”. Sadly, in hostile countries these events a more of a reality for day to day living–as you mention. Also, distance (simply put) puts distance between us and catastrophes abroad.


  3. David Jinkins
    David Jinkins April 17, 2013 at 10:54 AM |

    Now go one step further and think about an 8-year-old killed in a drone strike in Pakistan. You and I pay for those bombs.


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