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”

Comments are closed.