War of Ideas

Is it wrong to care more about 4 deaths in Boston than 80 in Syria?

On the day of the attack in Boston last Monday, a series of bombings across Iraq killed more than 30 people. On Friday, the night that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was tracked down to a backyard in Watertown in front of a nationwide television audience, an earthquake in Sichuan, China killed nearly 200 people and may have ...


On the day of the attack in Boston last Monday, a series of bombings across Iraq killed more than 30 people. On Friday, the night that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was tracked down to a backyard in Watertown in front of a nationwide television audience, an earthquake in Sichuan, China killed nearly 200 people and may have injured more than 11,000. Today brings news of yet another massacre in Syria, with at least 85 people reportedly killed by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad in a Damascus suburb. 

The media hasn’t exactly ignored these tragedies. The New York Times has the Syria story on page A4 today and the Wall Street Journal has an update on the rescue effort in Sichuan on A12, but still, a week after the Boston bombing, it’s pretty clear which story is getting priority. While nobody is downplaying what happened in Boston or the deaths of the three people at the Marathon and the MIT security guard killed on Thursday night, should the event make Americans reflect a little bit more on the tragedies around the world that we shrug off on a near daily basis?

The disparity has been noticed by several commentators. The Independent‘s Owen Jones writes:

[P]lacing human suffering into hierarchies allows injustices to continue without scrutiny or challenge; and it distorts our understanding of the reality of conflicts. It undermines a universal, shared sense of humanity. It is, ultimately, a manifestation of prejudice.So no – to answer my Twitter detractors – I do not believe the unbearable horrors that take place on a daily basis mean the anguish of Boston is somehow irrelevant. But all of us have a responsibility to challenge our own prejudices, and to work on empathising with fellow humans who suffer in lands distant – in miles or culture – from our own. Failing to empathise with suffering allows us to tolerate it; and, in doing so, we become complicit in its existence.

Assed Baig is more scathing, comparing the Boston tragedy to the civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes:

All the victims bleed. All the mothers feel the grief, the cries sound the same, and it all hurts. The differences are in language, skin colour, nationality, religion and of course, access to healthcare. Victims of drone strikes can only dream of a response like that we have seen in Boston. Emergency medical staff, ambulances, and police.

TV minutes and column inches make one thing clear, one American or Western life is worth much more than a Middle Eastern, Pakistani or African life. My prayers and thoughts are with all victims, not just the Western ones.

There’s been quite a bit of discussion over the years about the "hierarchy of death" in Western media coverage. As the cruelly cynical newsman’s formulation quoted Susan Moeller’s Compassion Fatigue put it, for the U.S. media, "one dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth 50 Arabs, who are worth 500 Africans."

There’s some empirical data to back up the observation. A study in the 1980s looked at relative levels of U.S. TV news coverage for natural disasters in different parts othe world. Western European disasters garnered 9.2 TV minutes per 1,000 deaths, Latin America just 1.02, and Asia just .76. As the authors put it, "using our data, the deaths of 1 Italian would equal those of 3 Romanians, 9 Latin Americans, 11 Middle Easterners, and 12 Asians."

Proximitiy — geographical or cultural — is a big part of the story here, but not all of it. As Michael Cohen writes, Americans have also become quite adept at ignoring the humdrum, everyday violence in our midst:

The same day of the marathon bombing in Boston, 11 Americans were murdered by guns. […]At the same time that investigators were in the midst of a high-profile manhunt for the marathon bombers that ended on Friday evening, 38 more Americans – with little fanfare – died from gun violence. One was a 22-year old resident of Boston. They are a tiny percentage of the 3,531 Americans killed by guns in the past four months – a total that surpasses the number of Americans who died on 9/11 and is one fewer than the number of US soldiers who lost their lives in combat operations in Iraq.

Racial bias undoubtedly plays some role in determining which tragedies the media prioritizes — see, the "Missing White Woman Syndrome" —  though in the case of the Boston bombing, there was national and international attention before we knew the ethnicities of the victims or perpetrators. 

As is often the case with questions of media bias, the answer may have less to do with ideology than novelty. We focus more on a bombing in Boston than massacres in Iraq and Syria — or run-of-the-mill shootings in Roxbury and Dorchester — for the same reason we focus more on the dozens of people killed each year in airplane crashes than the tens of thousands killed in car crashes: it’s far more unexpected. 

Writing for Guernica, Dawn columnist Rafia Zakaria discusses how this plays into the disparity between terrorist attacks in the United States and in South Asia:

Death is always unexpected in America and death by a terrorist attack more so than in any other place. It is this greater poignancy of attacks in America that begs the question of whether the world’s allocations of sympathy are determined not by the magnitude of a tragedy—the numbers dead and injured—but by the contrast between a society’s normal and the cruel aftermath of a terrorist event. It is in America that the difference between the two is the greatest; the American normal is one of a near-perfect security that is unimaginable in many places, especially in countries at war.

"Near-perfect security" hardly describes the daily lives of people in parts of many American cities. But based on past experience, Americans have a reasonable expectation that a marathon in a major U.S. city will not turn into a site of carnage. When that expectation is shattered, we’re understandably shocked and desperate for answers about why it happened. 

It’s not reasonable to expect people to care equally about every tragedy in the world at all times. And the fact that we tend to empathize more with victims we can more easily relate to in situations we might have found ourselves in, seems not so much callous as simply human. But hopefully events like Boston are a rem
inder that violence is always tragic, even if it happens on page A6.

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola