Three people are dead, and over a hundred injured after the bomb attacks on the Boston Marathon on Monday. As yet, no group has been found, or perpetrator identified with certainty. The police are scouring the pathway of the marathon anticipating more explosive devices. From what is trickling to media sources, pressure cooker devices packed with shrapnel were used to inflict the carnage.
The scene can do nothing but trigger sympathy. Civilians going about their activities of recreation; a sporting occasion of international stature, and then, bombs going off at and near the finishing line. An elderly runner knocked off his feet; the desperation as security forces moving in to secure the area; blood spattered and broken bodies carried or wheeled off. All of this, filmed, live and ready, and for that reason, potent.
The ease here, and notably in the United States, will be to let such suffering obscure other cases of inflicted violence. In far off lands, bombs drop from unmanned aerial vehicles and obliterate entire families in the blink of an eye. Manned aircraft armed to the teeth with ordinance achieve the same result. There are few tears. The car bombs that went off in Iraq on Monday were also savage with a higher death toll, killing 9 people and wounding 27. On the weekend, similar attacks left 55 dead across the country. The slain are worth a mention, no more. Death can be another country.
The temptation is so often one that Fox News exploits: the desire to see harm if it comes from the “enemy” as unique, and its infliction as unforgivably demonic. In the calculus of suffering, Americanism reigns supreme. The news agencies, of whatever colour, are also falling into line. “Young Boston bombing victim was waiting to hug his dad,” goes one headline with the AFP. Yes, we should mourn eight-year old Martin Richard who died near the Boston marathon’s 26-mile marker, but in the saturation age of the 24 hour news cycle, few will know the names of other children slain in other conflict zones. It doesn’t make either Richard or any other child less or more fortunate – it simply means that the focus of suffering has varying weight. Rolling cameras, and a keen audience, help.
The recent killing of Afghan civilians, as uncovered by an Afghan investigation team assigned by President Hamid Karzai, was a stark reminder that death at the hands of those capable of inflicting harm is global. On that occasion, 17 civilians perished in a NATO-led airstrike in the eastern province of Kunar. Such killings are but murmurs in the American media scape. The infliction of death, and its commemoration, is often specific and selective. Why one is killed varies – in the case of the fatalities from NATO airstrikes (directed or misdirected), there is always an apology that follows. Militants were the intended target, even if they were amongst you. Reckless indifference to human life is tolerated.
But in a situation such as the Boston bomb killings, eulogies can so often turn into security jerks and vengeful responses. The victims become exemplar Americans who were killed by “un-American” elements, when, ironically, it may turn out that the perpetrators were as American as any other, reared on the milk of patriotic insensibility. President Barack Obama, to his credit, has not put his foot on the accelerator of the US Security State – yet.
Such attacks produce another aberration. The arm chair conspiracy theorist, going to seed behind the keyboard, will whizz of theories of government complicity. The news cycle, ironically, deters reliability. As Hank Suever in the Washington Post (Apr 16) remarked, “News, both as a phenomenon and a commodity, must now travel faster than it can be verified, and our demands for who-what-why-how must now come bundled with caution.”
The conspiracy theorist is not merely found in civilian ranks. The Bush administration took irrational reasoning and myth-making presumptions of danger in the “War on Terror” to new levels. It takes paranoia to feed paranoia. The desire to inflate, to magnify the significance of a foe, can prove irresistible. To that end, localised acts of terror can be given an international accent, a situation which we have seen played out, to a certain extent, in Mali. The United States has an active list of domestic terror groups, not all of whom are that keen on following the light of the Prophet. Conspicuous violence has been left to angst-driven teenagers with easy access to heavy weaponry.
Then there is that uncomfortable sense of disproportion, where one starts having sessions of competitive grief, or even competitive grief fatigue. Was Sandy Hook, a terrifying spectacle that brings warfare to urban environments, somehow less significant because it did not involve bombs at a sporting marathon? America is at war with itself, and one that extends to the school yards.
“Terror” comes in various guises – security fantasies of armed schools as suggested by the National Rifles Association; domestic dissidents with a grudge and genuine foreign enemies. But for now, the implications of the Boston bomb attacks are still to be felt in their entirety. In the meantime, the condition of competitive grieving, or not grieving at all, will persist.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org