Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Tragedies in Boston and Baghdad: a Study in Shock

Yesterday my Facebook newsfeed was full of status updates about the bombing in Boston. People expressed their shock and sadness, put their thoughts out to those in Boston, condemned the perpetrators, sympathised with the victims and lionised those that tried to help out in the crisis. That the Boston Marathon bombing was a tragedy is not in question. But as I asked in my own facebook status yesterday, where was the public outcry about the similar bombings in Iraq that same morning, in which over 30 people have been confirmed dead? As a flurry of blog about Boston appear this morning, I feel it is necessary to answer with my own.

Why do people care more about Boston than Baghdad? I discussed this with a number of people yesterday and three answers came up with varying frequency. One small group claimed that it was because of the "normality" of such events in Baghdad, one person even calling Iraq a warzone. The suggestion here is that Boston, not being involved in a war, is not expected to suffer such tragedy while Baghdad, involved in a war, is expected to. The bombing in Baghdad fits what we expect, while Boston does not, hence our shock and outrage over Boston and apparent indifference to Baghdad.

Baghdad is not a warzone. Foreign intervention in Iraq ended when the US pulled out its troops in 2011. The US notably is a country at war, with active military forces engaged in combat in Afghanistan. But perhaps by "warzone" the Facebook commenter meant the regularity of terrorist attacks, especially those enacted by Sunni radicals in Iraq, and not actual involvement in international combat. This has a little more weight to it: we perceive Iraq as a country in which bombings are relatively commonplace, while this is not so in the US. In the first three months of 2013 over 1,000 Iraqis have been killed by terrorist attacks, and so it is perhaps understandable that yet more deaths are less shocking than those of the two in a country that we do not expect to suffer such tragedy.

Second was the suggestion that we (and here I refer to my own extended group of Facebook friends, who are largely based in New Zealand, Europe and America) identify much more strongly with American culture than we do with Iraqi. We consume American products, watch American media and adopt American cultural norms. An attack on Americans is an attack on people just like us, and so we take it a lot more personally than an attack on "other" people, who are not like us, who live far away from us, who we would never otherwise interact with in any way. It is easy to forget about Iraq and its people because they are not relevant to our everyday lives, while America and Americans we see as our own.

One final suggestion, that thankfully only came up once, was that we are only shocked by certain tragedies because we deliberately associate with a select few at the expense of all others. The argument was made that if we were to allow ourselves to be shocked and horrified by every death around the globe, from terrorist attacks to malnutrition, we would be incapable of functioning in everyday society. This Facebook commenter suggested that we must (whether consciously or not) tune out of all but a select few atrocities, with the unspoken criteria for those that we pay attention to presumably those given above: Americans are like us, and Americans are not expected to die in mass bombings, while Iraqis are both unlike us and expected to die in violence.

The question that arises for me, given the argument that we should only be shocked at the deaths of those who are both like ourselves and not expected to die in such a manner, comes from violent death rates in the USA. The USA has a violent death rate of 6.5 violent deaths for every 100,000 citizens. Iraq's violent death rate is 2.8 (both of these numbers are from 2011 WHO data). Boston in 2011 suffered 63 homicides, bumping the violent death rate up to an incredible 10.1 deaths for every 100,000 citizens.

Given these numbers, why do we not expect violent death in Boston when we do in Iraq? I suggest that another factor in our recognition of tragedies around the globe must that the event itself is indiscriminate and easily sensationalised. Straight murder is not as interesting to us because it tends to be discriminate; we can discern a reason for it: jealousy, rage, material benefit. Mass bombings have no such reasoning behind them. Their victims could be anyone, and the victims themselves are not as relevant to the bomber as the concepts that they represent (America itself, personified in its citizens for example). We have a level of personal investment in terrorist activity that we do not have in murder: while we cannot imagine anyone in our own lives hating us enough to murder us, any one of us could conceivably fall victim to a terrorist attack. Couple that with the prominence of terrorism in the media (even though murder is much more common in the US than terrorism, the Washington Post has published 19130 articles on "murder" since 2005 and 29357 articles on "terrorist" and "terrorism") and it is not hard to see why we ignore actual rates of violent death in countries and focus only on bombings when conceptualising our expectations of who is and is not likely to be killed.

So this is our shock over the Boston bombing: we relate to those who died, we did not expect them to die in such a way and the manner in which they died is one that naturally attracts our attention. We do not afford the same sympathy or shock to the victims in Baghdad because even though they too died in terrorist attacks, we do not so easily see ourselves in the victims' places and indeed we seem to almost expect the violent deaths of those who live in countries like Iraq, even when the rate of violent death is lower than that in the USA.

The outpouring of sympathy over Boston is an interesting opportunity to reflect on how we perceive other cultures, and the incredible emotional difference we can create, to the point where we can ignore the deaths of 30 innocents in one series of events but be shocked and saddened by the deaths of 2 elsewhere. That the Boston bombing is a tragedy is not in question, but perhaps while sympathising for those who lost loved ones in the US we can spare a thought or two for all those suffering in Iraq, no matter how far away they seem from us.

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