I heard someone remark after the Boston Marathon killings that seeing the actual names, photos and personal details of the victims 'makes all the difference' to how we react.
It was an honest and compassionately-felt view, yet one that, unwittingly, suggests much more about a wider lack of universal empathy.
It seems universally evident that the personalisation of any life taken in such horrific ways can invoke in almost anyone a natural sense of identification, sympathy and regard. Most often, that empathy reflects basic feelings of caring familiarity as we ask what it would be like if the victims were our own family or friends.
But what of all those victims whose names are never stated, their personal details never noted, their memories never recorded? What of those victims with little geographic and cultural proximity to 'us'? How much of that 'universal' concern and empathy is so readily dispensed?
More particularly, to what extent is that capacity for universal compassion conditioned by state officialdom, politicians and the media?
Barack Obama has been lauded for vowing to bring those allegedly responsible for the Boston killings to justice. Yet, alongside his continuation of US killing in Afghanistan, he is now directly responsible for more civilian drone deaths than any other president.
Remarkably, that's not news in itself. More remarkable is the accepted mode of information that keeps us from ever asking why it's not news.
Obama and much of the Western media have been consciously calling the Boston bombing not just an act of 'terror' but of specific 'terrorism', with all the key implications that carries. In contrast, the mass murder of civilians in US-waged wars around the globe carries no such descriptions. Unlike Boston, these victims are not only anonymous, but deserving of little or no empathy.
While a dutiful and fascinated media gazed over every conceivable aspect of the Boston deaths, from victim background to 'why America?' punditry, car bombings in Iraq, claiming the lives of 55 people, received rudimentary coverage from the BBC and other leading media.
In token fashion, Fox News used Boston as a "reminder of violence elsewhere", briefly noting the Iraq and other world terror killings as some kind of common, but distant concern:
"because attacks like this usually happen in far-off, troubled places — not in the middle of a major American city."Little wonder that viewers are not only disinterested in 'that kind of terror', but much more likely to excuse or ignore 'our' responsibility for mass killing in those "far-off, troubled places".
Thus, for example, a Western public will readily accept, if they ever get to notice, the bombing of civilians at an Afghan wedding party as a 'regrettable error' rather than 'state terror'.
Glenn Greenwald laments the prevalence of such selective compassion:
"The widespread compassion for yesterday's [Boston] victims and the intense anger over the attacks was obviously authentic and thus good to witness. But it was really hard not to find oneself wishing that just a fraction of that compassion and anger be devoted to attacks that the US perpetrates rather than suffers."As Greenwald asserts, it's understandable for people to show greater and more immediate concern for the loss or suffering of those nearest to them. Yet:
"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."The psychological disincentive to showing universal empathy is closely bound with dominant messages encouraging loyal identification with 'ours' - as in the selective news coverage and mourning of lost soldiers, rather than lost civilians, in Afghanistan.
Anyone who dares extend that empathy to the suffering 'other', particularly after terror attacks on the West, can be maligned as 'provocative', 'disrespectful' or, in the heat of 'under-attack' America, a 'fellow-supporter of terrorism'.
British boxer Amir Khan was denounced for asking people to "spare a thought" for the victims of terror attacks in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Palestine in addition to those killed in Boston.
Why was this fair and compassionate appeal described as "controversial"? And what does it say about a media which so readily frames criticism in this way?
Similar condemnation was directed at Independent writer Owen Jones for daring to tweet:
“Thoughts with the people of Iraq, too. At least 31 dead in yet another day of bombs. Horrific.”This had followed his initial tweet:
“Horrified by the scenes in Boston. The killing of innocent civilians is an affront to all our humanity. Solidarity and thoughts with Boston.”Combined, both messages amount to a universal, humanitarian statement. Yet, those who venture such added compassion and speak about the "hierarchy of suffering" are immediately damned for making a 'political' point.
That censorious reaction makes it all the easier to promote an establishment-serving mood of populist retribution. The fervoured hunting-down and arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, wall-to-wall-media coverage, open celebration of his capture and ritualised "USA, USA" chants all fuel more reactionary patriotism, fear, repression and compliance.
As Greenwald suggests regarding the political efforts to curtail Tsarnaev's Miranda rights:
"Needless to say, Tsarnaev is probably the single most hated figure in America now. As a result [...] not many people will care what is done to him, just like few people care what happens to the accused terrorists at Guantanamo, or Bagram, or in Yemen and Pakistan. But that's always how rights are abridged: by targeting the most marginalized group or most hated individual in the first instance, based on the expectation that nobody will object because of how marginalized or hated they are. Once those rights violations are acquiesced to in the first instance, then they become institutionalized forever, and there is no basis for objecting once they are applied to others[...]"Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has now reportedly stated from his hospital bed that he was motivated to plant the bombs in response to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Whatever the brothers' own brutal crimes, it's, as Alex Thomson bravely asserts, a damning 'reap what you sow' indictment of Western warmongering, and ongoing politicisation of young, disaffected men which the US and its allies will, as ever, do their best to hide or ignore.
With no apparent evidence of al-Qaeda guidance or any religious-jihadi hand, US authorities can only repeat that the brothers were 'self-radicalised'. Yet, what does that term usefully tell us?
The word 'radicalised' here is used as a pejorative charge, equating a person's considered opposition to illegal invasions and inhuman killing as somehow dangerous, subversive and threatening. Yet, if opposing state terrorism is to be 'radicalised', whether through others or self-realisation, there must be many millions of 'radicals' out there - even if the vast majority, including devout Muslims, don't resort to exploding bombs to make their 'radical' point.
The indictment against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev includes the particular charge of using weapons of mass destruction. Yet, lethal as the improvised pressure cooker bombs were, are we to believe that these makeshift devices can be equated with actual WMD held and wielded by states like the US and Israel? The inclusion of WMD on the charge sheet seems intended to both maximise public fear and enhance the Federal prosecutor's case for a death penalty.
Besides the still many unexplained circumstances behind the bombing, killing of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and apprehending of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, key questions and issues of disinformation remain over the relationship between Tamerlan Tsarnaev and US intelligence.
While patriotic citizens cheered the 'fine work' of the police, FBI and CIA, little did they know that the US authorities already had the elder brother 'in their sights'. Why, many now ask, wasn't he properly monitored or detained, and why did the FBI and Russian FSB intelligence permit him free and unquestioned movement between the US and Chechnya/Dagestan?
As with the latest Canadian claims of an 'al-Qaeda-Iranian bomb plot', much of what an approving public is being told, and repeated by the media, about 'close surveillance' and 'terror alerts' ranges from the spurious to the "hilarious".
More familiar questions are being asked about how 'assimilated' citizens like the Tsarnaev brothers could bring themselves to reject 'American values' in this way. How could those, even of foreign background, raised in America come to embrace such 'radicalised' hatred of their 'adopted' home? Perplexed observers also wonder how their consumerist lifestyles and aspirations can be squared with their brooding ideological discontent.
Again, the very framing of these questions suggests an insularity of thought, a negation of universal empathy and the feelings of those victimised and aggrieved by US/Western actions. For, why, beyond the political/media hype, would anyone living in the US not be able to see America's crimes and feel an urge to harbour such resentment?
Other 'clues' to a motive suggest the alienation Tamerlan Tsarnaev supposedly felt in never having made an American friend, as though this was a sign of social deviancy and terrorist intent.
It's likely that he did shun or see little worth in such associations. But what does that 'isolation' really indicate other than the remoteness and antagonism many people from ethnic groups feel towards their 'host' country, particularly one engaged in murderous wars against those of the same religious and cultural belonging?
In a country where anti-Muslim feeling runs so perniciously deep, many Muslims do, indeed, live lives of precarious detachment and marginalisation. But it doesn't make them more likely than any other US citizen, Christian, Muslim or otherwise, to kill and slaughter.
A more fitting question here might be: does the social experience of the powerful explain or legitimate their willingness and ability to take the lives of others? As one apposite tweet put it:
"What is the heinous motive of Barack Obama, who was born here and grew up here, to murder so many innocent civilians over the last five years?"If the Tsarnaev brothers did carry their 'self-radicalised' beliefs into acts of unwarranted violence, what relative labels might we apply to Obama and those operating at the much higher level of terror? How about 'power-radicalised', 'devoutly-militarised' and 'socially-dehumanised'?
Even if all wanton killing is to be universally condemned, the actions of state terrorists still carry more weight, responsibility and criminality than the individual crimes inflicted by those in situations like Boston. Of course, it's a measure of the power ideology noted that this differentiation would also be routinely denounced as 'radical' and 'indecent'.
In rejecting such righteous denunciation, universal empathy means transcending the conformist-serving propaganda that seeks to contain and prevent our capacity for true, all-compassionate awareness, a meaningful concern that extends sincerely and actively to all victims, all human beings, from Kabul to Boston and beyond.