Why Mourn Boston – And Not Kabul?


There's been a lot said lately about how we’re talking about Boston and not so much about Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re wondering if one life is worth more than another in our current media cycle. But what’s behind our arguably disproportionate attention to the Boston bombings? Are we just suffering from an incapacity to care for more than our own?

There’s a conversation we’ve been trying to have about racism in the reporting of the Boston bombings. It’s the same conversation we try to have every time there’s a tragedy in the West that measured globally, barely tips the Richter scale of international disaster. We get started with this conversation, as Virginia Trioli recently tried to do, but it either gets brutally cut down or prematurely cut short.  I think we’re having trouble following it through because the truth of why we seem to care more about Boston than about Kabul and Ramullah may just be too hard for us to swallow.

If we look at some of the explanations for the disproportionate attention to the Boston bombings in comparison to those in Iraq and Afghanistan, none of them seem to cut the ideological mustard.

First, we have the tried and tested we take care of our own theory, brought to us most recently by the Boss and championed by the President of the United States. This is the assumption that the suffering of people like us and close to us is going to matter more than the far away tragedies afflicting our distant cousins.

There’s a lot of support for this theory. Evolutionary psychologists like it. They think it’s been adaptive for us to worry more about bad things that are likely to happen to us than bad things that are not. They also believe that most of us suffer from something they call "in-group bias" which means that we think our mates are better, smarter, faster and more important than other people, despite evidence to the contrary.

But this doesn’t explain why people feel a strong affinity for animals, celebrities or strangers, and it doesn’t account for the kind of connected empathy shown by Iraqi kids for the victims of the Boston bombings. It’s a theory that leaves out some of the information and ditches a lot of what makes us human.

Another idea we pull out to explain our bias here, is that the bombings in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are so constant that they’re not worth reporting. We get tired of the same old same old because we’re fickle creatures who need constant media entertainment. If you don’t follow this trail too far it looks pretty sound. If you don’t think too hard about how many cook off shows are on television, how many column inches are spent on penis size and how despite the wonders of the internet, we still spend most of our time watching porn and shopping, you could find this convincing. If only you could argue that there were more repetitive behaviours than wanking, shopping and cooking, this theory would have it in the bag.

Whether we like it or not, I don’t think we can begin to answer this question without looking to racism for an answer. The recent bombings in Boston were disproportionately reported not simply because we care for our own or we’ve become numb to the atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re following what’s happening in Boston because it’s a tragedy that we can make sense of. The way we’ve been told the story, fits neatly with how our stories are supposed to be told in the West.

There are villains in this story and there are heroes. Individual people are responsible and we’ve found them, killed one of them and maimed the other. They come from far away in a troubled land we don’t understand. It’s a simple song with a simple melody with all the rough edges removed. Like Elvis’ reworking of Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog, it’s been made more calming, soothing, digestible and whiter.

What separates the reporting of a death in Boston from one in Iraq is not so different from what separates Public Enemy from N Sync. It’s the difference between fighting the power and bringing da noise. Giving more attention to the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan asks us folks over here to wonder about our part in wars that are killing thousands of people. The coverage of the Boston bombings asks only that we sit back and watch the show as if it has nothing to do with us. Boston is the Disney version of the original tragic fairytale. Cleaner, simpler and whiter.

The victims of the Boston bombings have directly benefited from what doctors in Iraq and Afghanistan have learned while treating people who’ve lost limbs in those wars. Stopping blood loss from a severed leg blown off by a homemade bomb is the same wherever you are. If we reported more of those links we might have a hope of telling a bigger story. But to do that we’d need to risk making connections; between medical advances and war, between individual acts of terror and collective suffering and between racism and our choice of stories to report. But we can’t begin to do this unless we can first have the conversation. And the main topic of conversation here must include a discussion of racism. Even Andrew Bolt thinks so.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day. 

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.