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We are all Boston this week, but not Baghdad, Benghazi or Mogadishu

A display by The Illuminator in Brooklyn after Boston bombings
A display by The Illuminator in Brooklyn after Boston bombings
The Illuminator, Kyle Depew

Most of us, in the United States anyway, have been glued to the news out of Boston this week due to the ‘marathon bombings’ and today’s hunt for the second suspect that made the city a virtual ghost town.

The more deadly explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, diverted some of our attention. But that tragedy (which may turn out to be largely due to poor maintenance and lack of adequate safety regulation) does not appear to have achieved the same level of public interest and engagement despite killing more people and causing a vast amount of destruction.

The massive ongoing tragedy in Syria, affecting millions, is hardly on our news radar. But Boston is on theirs.

Much less noticed were other bombings and terrorist attacks going on at the same time this week, such as the spate of bombings in Iraq that so far this week has killed 32 people or the bombings in Somalia’s capital city, Mogadishu, that has reportedly killed dozens – including one Canadian.

There are, in fact, bombings or senseless attacks like this almost every day somewhere in the world.


But we seldom pay them much attention. Innocent children are killed and maimed on a regular basis around the world. Families ripped apart. What happened in Boston happens almost daily elsewhere. (NOTE: See photo at right of media coverage in Boston today, with scrolling news text at bottom about the latest cafe bombing in Iraq ….)

Why don’t the tragedies elsewhere even come close to generating the same kind of empathy, sadness and compassion we feel for our own?

A Boston University economics grad student Jacob Geller, this week wrote an excellent blog post asking himself (and, to some extent, answering) this question:

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.

But we don’t have to.

The media coverage of the Boston bombings has not been without its flaws, but it has demonstrated a powerful ability to make the abstract real – to make us care about the suffering of others we don’t know. A television viewer in Seattle may be no more connected to the bombing in Boston than he/she is to a bombing in Baghdad, other than by nationality.

The tragic events in Boston show it is indeed possible to feel deep empathy for strangers.

And it is in our interest to do so. As the news unfolded this week, many of us moved from shock to a sense of community. To being inspired by acts of heroism, by selflessness and, most importantly perhaps, by the amazing resilience and strength of those targeted by violence in an attempt to create fear and despair.

As Geller notes in his blog post, terrorism seems to spring from the lack of empathy for others — from the “us versus them” mentality. This week, we are all Bostonians. Maybe in the near future, we can also sometimes be the rest of the world.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.