The Boston Marathon Bombings, Selective Empathy, and State Worship

I’ve held back on writing something about the Boston Marathon bombings because there is little to comment on about the actual incident before something is known about the perpetrators. But here are a few reflections on the public reaction to the attack.

Selective Empathy

As many people have already pointed out, the collective empathy that Americans feel for victims of similar attacks when they are carried out by our own government is virtually zero compared to what is being felt now for Bostonians. It was just indubitably confirmed through hard investigative journalism last week that large portions of the 3,000-4,000 people killed in the drone war have been unidentified individuals without any connection to any terrorist or insurgent groups in conflict with the US. For years, there have been indisputable reports of massive civilian casualties in drone bombings in Pakistan, Yemen, and beyond.

“How different are the images produced by such attacks—shattered bodies, dismembered limbs, severed arteries, frantic aid givers and terrified survivors—how different from the moving images of the tragedy in Boston now being broadcast and rebroadcast on TV stations around the globe?”  Barry Lando asks.

Within hours of the Marathon bombings, more than 75 people were killed in a bombing in Iraq. The perpetrators were part of a group called Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a group that only exists as a result of the illegal US war and invasion, which itself got hundreds of thousands of people killed. This is a regular occurrence in and around Baghdad, and has been since the start of the Bush administration’s elective war there. But most Americans have been unconcerned.

The most important thing to glean from this discrepancy in empathy for senseless acts of violence inflicted on our own countrymen as compared with the senseless acts of violence carried out by our own countrymen on equally innocent people abroad was articulated brilliantly by Glenn Greenwald today:

Regardless of your views of justification and intent: whatever rage you’re feeling toward the perpetrator of this Boston attack, that’s the rage in sustained form that people across the world feel toward the US for killing innocent people in their countries. Whatever sadness you feel for yesterday’s victims, the same level of sadness is warranted for the innocent people whose lives are ended by American bombs. However profound a loss you recognize the parents and family members of these victims to have suffered, that’s the same loss experienced by victims of US violence. It’s natural that it won’t be felt as intensely when the victims are far away and mostly invisible, but applying these reactions to those acts of US aggression would go a long way toward better understanding what they are and the outcomes they generate.

I’ve reviewed on this blog over and over again the abundance of commentary from locals in Yemen and Pakistan who give testimony to the fact that the US drone war breeds deep resentment that can be immensely consequential.

“People are afraid to go to weddings because, whenever large groups of men gather, they are afraid a drone will hit them,” a sheikh from Bayhan district in Shabwa told The Economist last year.

After a September 2012 drone strike that killed 13 civilians, a local Yemeni activist told CNN, “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake. This part of Yemen takes revenge very seriously.”

There is an important lesson to be learned from the despair Americans feel today: it is universal.

Tragedy Elicits State Worship

Whenever there is a horrible attack like this one, Americans invariably morph their feelings of anger and sadness into overt expressions of state worship. It seems almost instinctual. Everybody starts proclaiming their love for the USA –  their pride and admiration for the police, military, and elected officials.

This is not trivial. States are violent institutions by their very nature, but they thrive on what is called “stability” because stability means people aren’t unsatisfied and disillusioned and are therefore less likely to question the authority of the government and “cause trouble.” It is a testament to hundreds of years of ideological propaganda in concert with state formation that the first instinct of most people after such an incident is to rally around the flag, the government, its officials, and its armed militias.

In times like these, patriotism and nationalistic fervor take over – which is just another way of saying dissent and self-criticism are met with heightened hostility.

It’s too early to say what the consequences of these reactions will be in the near future. But as I warned on Twitter hours after the bombing yesterday, we should be prepared for one set of reactions if this turns out to be concocted by Islamists, and a very different set if not.

21 thoughts on “The Boston Marathon Bombings, Selective Empathy, and State Worship”

  1. Im waiting for the various ideologies to point at scapegoats for why the Boston Bombings happend

    Paleocons: Immigration (specifically non-white immigration) aka this wouldn't have happened if the state kept "third worlders" out

    Neocons: Muslims, Middle Easterners, Arabs, etc (anything that will whip the people into supporting another misguided war in the Muslim world)

    Liberals: Anyone who might be remotely associated to being against Obama

    1. I'm waiting to see if its Iran or North Korea that we go to war with because of this. One of the two will end up being blamed and attacked.

      1. terror hits on Mexican independence day we look at Mexican terrorist and gangs..on Zionist independence day we look at iran? I don't think do

    2. well done jglaser

      there is far too much bellicosity coming out of official washington to think we are not directly responsible for blowback

      and why would officialdom not stage another falseflag before another invasion is launched or just as a massive medicare compromise is offered. Or there is an imminent financial downturn for which a major new GWOT distraction would seem fitting

  2. I empathize with the victims in Boston, and I empathize with the victims of the American empire. They're hardly mutually exclusive. It's irresponsible to respond to the support people feel for Boston by putting them down. We should be thankful to them for their support for the victims of violence in universal terms. It's good when people feel empathy, and Americans at large will never feel it for foreign victims without first feeling it for domestic victims.

    I love Anti-War, but it's articles like these that lose us the debate in the hearts of too many Americans. Why? Because we've been putting differing monetary values on people from different countries for at least a century . The only way for us to win the debate is by harnessing empathy, not by shooting it down.

    1. Neither Glaser nor Greenwald are disparaging those who feel empathy and outrage over the mayhem in Boston. What they're suggesting is that we learn from the feelings we experience by imagining the feelings of citizens of other countries who experience far greater carnage at the hands of our government. They are saying we should be outraged by the slaughter of innocents whatever the location, religion or race of those innocent victims. You disagree with that?

  3. How can Americans be empathetic to bombings that are almost totally unreported or under reported by US major media?
    When or where are the numerous drone strikes and air strikes reported? Our local media has almost zero reporting on the regular drone carnage in the middle east. Most of my coverage comes from Anti War and Democracy now.

    1. The answer is, stop watching, reading US mainstream media and get your news and information elsewhere then you'll know what's really going on., If you are reading antiwar then you are already in good company. There are many more independent media outlet. Just a few, in no particular order….: Al Jazeera, Democracy Now, Russia TOday, The Real News Network,

      1. Tom is simply stating the obvious: that mainstream American media is silent and thus the majority of folks who get their daily dose of propaganda are ignorant of what goes on. Heck! They don't even know places like and others even exist much less have any understanding of what is truly going on. That goes for those on either end of the political spectrum.

        1. If you look at various international news websites, you will see reports of bombings everyday! The poor pakistani civilians that are killed everyday. Obama states that using bombs to kill others is an act of terrorism; then what is he called when he signs off on drone strikes in Pakistan? Think about it. We are a country that feels like everything we do is perfect and correct. We are hypocritical. If only we could show some empathy to other countries, we could go far along in term of international conflicts. Everyone hates us outside of this country and to be honest, its undertstandable.

  4. No one is saying we should not have empathy for the victims in Boston. What we do, however, need to do is remember things like when Donald Rumsfeld was asked about the ongoing random bombings in the newly liberated Iraq. His response, "Demcracy is messy." It's that kind of callouse disregard for the lives of others when they deserve empathy as well.

    Note also that when Americans are attacked in such a manner the response is to "rally 'round the flag" and the government. Why do we think that people in other lands that get bombed by the United States will blame THEIR government for the sorry state of affairs?

    Human beings are funny, universally they object to their friends and loved ones being murdered and maimed.

  5. Article is right on. Also I would note that objecting to empire is a direct way of opposing violence at home. Empire obviously generates attacks.

    Good point by commenter wondering if this attack will be a false flag to invade iran or NK.

  6. Suffering is suffering no matter where it happens, to whom, and what or who causes it. If you want to write about the pain and suffering caused by the U.S. military activities abroad, do so; it's a legitimate concern, and no one stops you from doing that. But strop trying to compare supposed degrees of empathy related to suffering (what do you know about what people privately empathize or don't empathize with, and what reflections they have about what is happening in the world?). You are merely doing it to politicize the issue, clearly for your own purposes and to inflate your own ego. The only effect is that you are putting salt on the wound and increasing the suffering.

    1. Polls have shown that about 75% of USans support killing foreign nationals (the vast majority of whom are not specifically identified villains and are every bit as deserving of the presumption of innocence as you or I) with drones in their own countries, with whom we are not at war.

      Others here have rightly placed most of the blame for that statistic on the media and the government lies the media repeats, but the statistic remains, and without the tireless work of John Glaser and Glenn Greenwald.

      The reactions of people like you and Jeffrey are entirely predictable, which is why it's so courageous for Glaser and Greenwald to speak out, and why it has absolutely nothing to do with their "own purposes" or inflating anybody's ego

        1. Actually, no empathy in this circumstance is appropriate. The dead were not your intimates, neighbors or Army buddies. Normal appropriate response is *sympathy* not empathy to survivors one actually knows as part of one's physical reality. Beyond that, a normal well adjusted adults will think how unfortunate then maybe donate a pint of blood or a few dollars to relief efforts then go about their business.

          Outpourings of grief for strangers serve no purpose beyond allowing the empty to "feel part of something bigger than themselves" which borders frankly on masochism and the sort of self abnegation that is characteristic of those who aren't exactly leaders among mankind.

          Of course, at least the psychology of sad sacks and grief mongers is obvious. Far more compelling is the concern troll who finds his way on to a foreign policy site which scrutinizes exactly what is being done with tax payers' funds the day after an incident which some speculate may be revenge for the years of terrorist attacks committed by American citizens in foreign countries to monitor whether or not antiwar activists feel an appropriate amount of grief.

          "War starts within yourself and you are certainly caught in your inner war." One suspects the only war here is the straight face one must keep when uttering banalities to cover for one's nationalism and racism. Hence the outrage when someone notes that these sorts of things, however unfortunate, happen daily and do not merit emotionally manipulative day/night media coverage.

    2. 3 people killed and 100 wounded is peanuts compared to what happens in Iraq on a weekly basis. Or on the highways of America in a week for that matter. where's your sympathy for the victims of auto accidents asshole? There is a completely selective manner in which the masses are directed to feel sympathy for their fellow human beings and it is in an "us vs. them" mentality, no matter if the victims are civilians or military. And unfortunately it has obviously sunk in with a great many of them, idiots like you included. The fact that you don't even see that is a testament to your feeble mindedness.

      1. Sure, keep the judgments rolling. War starts within yourself and you are certainly caught in your inner war.

  7. A very good point, Tom Mauel! Unless and until the media in this country truthfully reports the carnage going on by the drone wars in other countries, complete with visual coverage, there will never be the justifiable outrage as there is with the 24/7 coverage given to terrorism perpetrated here in the US…it's an outrage.

  8. A week earlier…a US terrorist drone strike claimed the lives of 10 children and several women. Karma is coming for americans…embrace the same terror you spread all over the world!

  9. At least 30 members of an Afghan wedding party were killed and many more wounded when a U.S. plane bombed a village in the central province of Uruzgan today.

    Those who bomb Muslims in different countries on daily basis are responsible for this crime. They killed more than 75 Iraqi people yesterday and 50 more the day before. The genocide in Syria by your terrorist pawns is NOT WORKING and Assad will be the winner over your terrorists who you trained and fund. You and your allies have killed more than 80M people in Syria through PROXY WAR. The terror in Boston designed and implemented with least casualty in a very crowded area, which is suspicious, for propaganda purpose to set the stage for more crimes against humanity. You must be dumb to think you can fool the people again. The world knows that most of the terrors are manufactured at home and implemented by your thugs and your allies. We know you are cooking something using victims’ emotion to set up the STAGE for action against countries like Syria and its allies, NOT N. Korea, to smooth the path for “greater Israel” in the “New Middle East” project of NEOCONS, but you WILL NOT BE SUCCESSFUL. The world KNOWS who the real terrorist is.

    1. RE: "Those who bomb Muslims in different countries on daily basis are responsible for this crime. " – because No man is an island, and whenever the bells toll they toll for everyone of us. I am again sad for innocent men and women, for sanctity of human life, this time in Boston.

      1. Good post. You remind us it's OK to mourn the loss of life in Boston, without denying the truth of Samson's post.

  10. What will be the public reaction if this turns out to be a concoction of the FBI, as most recent terrorist plots in the US have been?

    1. Probably the same reaction to the rest of the US government's crimes against humanity, the few that have actually been exposed, that is–NOTHING!

  11. When Obama gets in front of cameras and says "this was a heinous and COWARDLY act
    that took place in Boston, I just cringe. Then he goes on to say it was perpertrated by malevolent individuals.
    In some twisted "psychopathic" way I think he was talking about himself. Afterall how much
    blood is on his hands?. Thousands killed in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine
    and Syria. I guess he doesn't think anyone is paying attention. Or when you think you're
    GOD, maybe everything you do is honorable and right.

    1. the stupid thing about his speech was "we don't know how did this and why".. the why part of it is real stupid. there are two senarios as why. 1.. an inside /israeli false flag to blame it on iran and 2..a revange of 1000's that are being killed in iraq, afghanistan, pakistan yemen etc by drones. and I am sure he knows that.

  12. Can anyone define the difference between this bombing and a drone attack on civilians in Pakistan, Yemen ,Sudan and all the other places that our hero drone pilots kill people??????

    1. Yes, I can (ooops that discredited phrase) . Bombs from the sky good. Bombs on the ground bad/

  13. I am saddened for the victims. They didn't deserve it. On the news I saw the automobiles in Boston – Lexus, BMW, Nissan, etc. What were the cars there 30 years ago? What was the national debt 30 years ago? It seems like these people must feel exclusive to others in the U.S. and yet I think they expect help for what has happened. Ask Japan for it instead and not us. Do they even recognize the difference in U.S. industry and what they have done to the former northern industrial U.S.? Are they blind to it?

  14. I notice not you nor any commenter yet has called for a change in US foreign policy. Empathy will not heal wounds, reunite families, improve economic conditions, nor bring back the dead. Empathy is cheap when what is really needed is action.

    1. It's not surprising at all. To call into question anything, ANYTHING, that the U.S. government does at this time is a sure-fire way to the unemployment line. I don't disagree with your position that this is quite possibly blowback from foreign policy actions but, anyone that points that out now will at best be called a conspiracy nut, at worst a traitor.

      This morning we're hearing of ricin being mailed to a U.S. Senator…haven't we lived this movie before? It will be a while before anyone mainstream will be able to utter the phrase, "inside job".

      1. "Cowardice is a trait wherein fear and excess self-concern override doing or saying what is right, good and of help to others or oneself in a time of need—it is the opposite of courage. As a label, "cowardice" indicates a failure of character in the face of a challenge."

  15. If the person(s) responsible for the Boston Marathon atrocity are Islamist, then this attack smells like blowback from the neocon foriegn policy of unconditional support for the aparthied state of Israel, the drone murder campaign against innocent men, women, and children, and the war of aggresssion in Iraq. Neocon foriegn policy has played a leading role in the bankruptcy of the USG, dragging

  16. tarnishing the reputation of the United States around the world, and the death of an innocent eight year old boy.

  17. “You are merely doing it to politicize the issue”

    When gov officials, out of the gate, stamp it “terrorism”, it has already been politicized. Trying to prove your point by crying ‘political’ foul is the least constructive to discuss such matters. It serves only to muzzle opinions – on *either* side- until a more appropriate time. Right now is the appropriate time. Glenn Greenwald has written many times in the past about “politicization” of tragedies and how it’s not disrespectful to discuss them such as John does here. If John were to go to one of the funerals of the deceased and mock their family and friends, *that* would be disrespectful. But that’s not what he’s doing, obviously.

  18. Because of what the U.S.A. government is doing overseas and here at home, there are a lot of really pissed off people running around these days. What else does one expect?

  19. Because of what the U.S.A. government is doing overseas and here at home, there are a lot of pissed off people running around the world these days. What else does one expect?

  20. In Septmeber 2001 Macedonia was fighting a war against Albanian Muslim Terrorists during the New York carnage thousands of miles away US Soldiers back in Kosovo and US Instructors were aiding those murderous scum bags so yeah it goes back a long time and to many places all across the World

  21. If it was a "false flag" operation, what foreign country would have the most to gain?

  22. Dear Rightfirster, "False Flag" was the first thing which came to my mind when the horror of the Boston Massacre became a national pre-occupation. Glenn Greenwald has correctly stated that "terrorism" has become an emotive and not a descriptive term. "Terrorism" is Algeria's deliberately bombing pizza parlors in France to achieve their independence. Dr. Martin Luther King rightly called the US government the greatest terrorist organization in the world during his historic speech in a New York church some years ago. I have my own foreign country in mind in response to your question, but also alignment to domestic interest groups. These are really scary times. Go back and read about Woodrow Wilson's response to so-called "traitors".

  23. List of Children Killed by US (Drone Strikes) in Yemen and Pakistan
    [The following list was issued by Drones Watch on 20 January 2013. The names were compiled from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports.]
    By Jadaliyya Reports
    Name | Age | Gender
    Noor Aziz | 8 | male
    Abdul Wasit | 17 | male
    Noor Syed | 8 | male
    Wajid Noor | 9 | male
    Syed Wali Shah | 7 | male
    Ayeesha | 3 | female
    Qari Alamzeb | 14| male
    Shoaib | 8 | male
    Hayatullah KhaMohammad | 16 | male
    Tariq Aziz | 16 | male
    Sanaullah Jan | 17 | male
    Maezol Khan | 8 | female
    Nasir Khan | male
    Naeem Khan | male
    Naeemullah | male
    Mohammad Tahir | 16 | male
    Azizul Wahab | 15 | male
    Fazal Wahab | 16 | male
    Ziauddin | 16 | male
    Mohammad Yunus | 16 | male
    Fazal Hakim | 19 | male
    Ilyas | 13 | male
    Sohail | 7 | male
    Asadullah | 9 | male
    khalilullah | 9 | male
    Noor Mohammad | 8 | male
    Khalid | 12 | male
    Saifullah | 9 | male
    Mashooq Jan | 15 | male
    Nawab | 17 | male
    Sultanat Khan | 16 | male
    Ziaur Rahman | 13 | male
    Noor Mohammad | 15 | male
    Mohammad Yaas Khan | 16 | male
    Qari Alamzeb | 14 | male
    Ziaur Rahman | 17 | male
    Abdullah | 18 | male
    Ikramullah Zada | 17 | male
    Inayatur Rehman | 16 | male
    Shahbuddin | 15 | male
    Yahya Khan | 16 |male
    Rahatullah |17 | male
    Mohammad Salim | 11 | male
    Shahjehan | 15 | male
    Gul Sher Khan | 15 | male
    Bakht Muneer | 14 | male
    Numair | 14 | male
    Mashooq Khan | 16 | male
    Ihsanullah | 16 | male
    Luqman | 12 | male
    Jannatullah | 13 | male
    Ismail | 12 | male
    Taseel Khan | 18 | male
    Zaheeruddin | 16 | male
    Qari Ishaq | 19 | male
    Jamshed Khan | 14 | male
    Alam Nabi | 11 | male
    Qari Abdul Karim | 19 | male
    Rahmatullah | 14 | male
    Abdus Samad | 17 | male
    Siraj | 16 | male
    Saeedullah | 17 | male
    Abdul Waris | 16 | male
    Darvesh | 13 | male
    Ameer Said | 15 | male
    Shaukat | 14 | male
    Inayatur Rahman | 17 | male
    Salman | 12 | male
    Fazal Wahab | 18 | male
    Baacha Rahman | 13 | male
    Wali-ur-Rahman | 17 | male
    Iftikhar | 17 | male
    Inayatullah | 15 | male
    Mashooq Khan | 16 | male
    Ihsanullah | 16 | male
    Luqman | 12 | male
    Jannatullah | 13 | male
    Ismail | 12 | male
    Abdul Waris | 16 | male
    Darvesh | 13 | male
    Ameer Said | 15 | male
    Shaukat | 14 | male
    Inayatur Rahman | 17 | male
    Adnan | 16 | male
    Najibullah | 13 | male
    Naeemullah | 17 | male
    Hizbullah | 10 | male
    Kitab Gul | 12 | male
    Wilayat Khan | 11 | male
    Zabihullah | 16 | male
    Shehzad Gul | 11 | male
    Shabir | 15 | male
    Qari Sharifullah | 17 | male
    Shafiullah | 16 | male
    Nimatullah | 14 | male
    Shakirullah | 16 | male
    Talha | 8 | male


    Afrah Ali Mohammed Nasser | 9 | female
    Zayda Ali Mohammed Nasser | 7 | female
    Hoda Ali Mohammed Nasser | 5 | female
    Sheikha Ali Mohammed Nasser | 4 | female
    Ibrahim Abdullah Mokbel Salem Louqye | 13 | male
    Asmaa Abdullah Mokbel Salem Louqye | 9 | male
    Salma Abdullah Mokbel Salem Louqye | 4 | female
    Fatima Abdullah Mokbel Salem Louqye | 3 | female
    Khadije Ali Mokbel Louqye | 1 | female
    Hanaa Ali Mokbel Louqye | 6 | female
    Mohammed Ali Mokbel Salem Louqye | 4 | male
    Jawass Mokbel Salem Louqye | 15 | female
    Maryam Hussein Abdullah Awad | 2 | female
    Shafiq Hussein Abdullah Awad | 1 | female
    Sheikha Nasser Mahdi Ahmad Bouh | 3 | female
    Maha Mohammed Saleh Mohammed | 12 | male
    Soumaya Mohammed Saleh Mohammed | 9 | female
    Shafika Mohammed Saleh Mohammed | 4 | female
    Shafiq Mohammed Saleh Mohammed | 2 | male
    Mabrook Mouqbal Al Qadari | 13 | male
    Daolah Nasser 10 years | 10 | female
    AbedalGhani Mohammed Mabkhout | 12 | male
    Abdel- Rahman Anwar al Awlaki | 16 | male
    Abdel-Rahman al-Awlaki | 17 | male
    Nasser Salim | 19

  24. In any event, "looks like a good excuse to ramp up the police state at home" was my reaction.

  25. before I saw the bank draft which said $7250, I accept …that…my mother in law really bringing home money part time on their computer.. there sisters roommate haz done this for less than eighteen months and by now paid the morgage on their villa and got a brand new audi. this is where I went,

  26. @Angela Keaton: Very good post.
    I am encouraged in seeing the “maturity” of thought being expressed in regards to both the lack of any real severity and the lack of crocodile tears.
    About time adults stop letting themselves be manipulated by those who know not sympathy from empathy. Watched are we for every response that varies fromhand wringers on one side and the kill em all no matter who or why on the other.
    Some are looking f ar beyond just the small mindset our current political collectives are trying to confine us into and while dangerous to designers of human drones in a police state to those who open eyes and minds to outside this boxed in world it can be liberating.

  27. This article is propaganda in its purest form. To suggest Americans have an impulse to surround our flag and governments is testimony of utter ignorance of our nature. Evidently, as generally ignorant are most Americans of collateral casualties in the pursuits of global criminals abroad, so are those giving the nod here; Americans turn to each other for solidarity, not their government. And if fact, the people tend to blame our government for not doing enough.

  28. A week earlier…a US terrorist drone strike claimed the lives of 10 children and several women. Karma is coming for americans…embrace the same terror you spread all over the world!

  29. It’s hard to tell with these Internet start ups if they’re really interested in building companies or if they’re just interested in the money. I can tell you, the full report

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