What a week. A suicide bomber in Pakistan killed four people. A fertilizer plant explosion in Texas killed at least fourteen people. Sixteen people died in a goldmine collapse in Ghana. President Obama and members of the U.S. Senate were sent letters laced with poison. A journalist in Mexico was assassinated, presumably by agents of the drug wars. At least 65 people died in terrorist attacks in Iraq. More than 150 people just died in an earthquake in Szechuan. And after two young women and a little boy were murdered by bombs at the Boston Marathon, it felt surreal if not uncomfortable to see my last post about America’s inexperience with bombs at home emblazoned across the blog. But what to say?
For most of the week, we had no trace of a motive for the Boston bombing. And now that one suspect of Chechen origin is dead and his brother is in custody, we still don’t have anything we could officially call a reason. Polemicists on the right and left are using the event as “evidence” for the necessity of their own political agendas, arguing that we should have used drones, or that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should face a military trial, or that we need more surveillance cameras everywhere, or that the two suspects seem more like the psychotic teens of Columbine than terrorist operatives. As John Dickerson observed in Slate yesterday:
We need more restraint and less wild guessing. Free-flowing debate in the search for meaning is a part of these moments and a part of the human condition, but … In these fast-moving times when the only thing that is certain is that the first piece of news has repeatedly been wrong, perhaps those lawmakers and pundits who want to be part of the final conversation should (paraphrasing Mike Monteiro) follow the Quaker rule: Be meaningful or be quiet.
Of course, we all like to think ourselves meaningful. But so far, with no official motive, the only irrefutable point any politician has made thusfar came from the Ambassador from the Czech Republic, who urged the media to note that Czechs and Chechens belong to two different countries located over a thousand miles apart.
Distance and borders matter, obviously, since none of us are equally horrified by every single one of this week’s tragedies. But why? I had friends in the Boston area who were stuck at home during Friday’s lockdown. (Two were hoping to be allowed out in time for them to make it to the annual birthday celebration of their late brother Bill, whom I wrote about at this time last year in a post on grief.) But I’ll hazard to guess that most of those glued to the news updates from Boston did not have loved ones there. The story dominated the headlines across the ocean in Germany, in France, in the U.K. Everyone seemed to be watching.
The simplest reason for this is that people are naturally empathic, upset to see others upset and, in the words of the Czech ambassador, “It was a stark reminder of the fact that any of us could be a victim of senseless violence anywhere at any moment.” But dead people in Pakistan and Iraq no longer serve as reminders of that fact. They instead represent our ability to compartmentalize, to exile certain tragedies to a semi-numb region of the mind, either because they seem too frequent for us to commit to or because we want to believe there is some crucial difference between Us and Them, protecting us from their fate. It’s not malicious of us to compartmentalize in this way—to tear up upon sight of the beautiful little boy in Boston while not even checking to see if any of the victims in Iraq were children—but it’s not fair either.
And so I stared down my last post about World War II bombs, feeling inexplicably uncomfortable, wondering whether it was callous of me to not say anything about the tragedies going on in my old home country, yet knowing World War II would never have happened had my new home country not embraced a dangerous idea of what makes a country “home.” Borders are always bizarre. In a digital age, distance is all in the mind. I’ll never be able to rationally explain why some things feel “close to home” and others don’t. I’ll always care more about the safety of those I know personally than those I don’t, but I’ll never be completely comfortable with this fact because ignoring our common humanity is what builds borders and facilitates cruelty. I’ll always tear up if you show me a picture of an innocent victim. I’ll always try to remember to ask why we are shown pictures of some victims, and not others.
Or, as a friend in Boston observed during the lockdown, “It is so hard to be inside on this gorgeous, beautiful spring day. Minor problem, but reminds me how lucky we are most of the time to feel safe outside our homes.”