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Empathy, Not Empire

The Best and Worst of “Boston Strong”

by MEL KING AND Rev. WILLIAM ALBERTS Ph.D.

The Boston Marathon bombings brought out the best in—and revealed the worst about—Americans. Understanding these two contrary realities would really make Boston—and America—‘STRONG.’

The horrific Marathon bombings, which tragically killed three persons and injured over 260, brought out the best in Americans. At their own risk, bystanders and runners rushed to aid the injured—as did police and other first responders. Hospitals opened their doors wide, and medical, social service and administrative staff and chaplains responded with caring and competence—24/7. There were no questions about health insurance or out-of-pocket costs to the injured. Medical care was not about for-profit, but about providing “exceptional care, without exception” for everyone. Meeting human need was all that mattered.

People of faith responded with compassion. Various congregations joined together just beyond the Marathon finish line to pray and sing in solidarity with the victims and their loved ones. The voices of religious leaders were heard from pulpits across the city, expressing empathy for the fallen and sympathy with others as a community.

Empathy for the victims and their families brought out the generosity of Americans. The One Boston Fund was established by Boston mayor Thomas Menino and Governor Deval Patrick, and its volunteer staff was amazed at the amount given, by Americans from every state in the union, from $1 to $1 million. The total received was over $64 million. (THE ONE FUND, Boston/2013, secure.onefundboston,org)

Relatives of those who died reportedly received about $2.2 million, and the same amount was given “those who had two limbs amputated or suffered permanent brain damage.” In addition, “the 14 victims who had one leg amputated will each receive about $1.2 million.” And “another 69 people injured in the attacks will receive between $125,000 and $948,300, depending on how much time they spent at a hospital.” (“One Fund to distribute nearly $61 million to victims,” By David Abel, The Boston Globe, June 29, 2013)

One Fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg put it in perspective: “No amount of money can replace what has been lost,” he said, and continued, “It was a solemn responsibility to allocate these finite contributions across tremendous pain and suffering, but it was made lighter by the unprecedented generosity of Bostonians, of Americans, and of people around the world.” (Ibid)

Empathy abounded in some 47,000 letters containing contributions for the victims of the Marathon bombings. One Fund Boston volunteer Barbara Thorp was quoted as saying, “’These letters are so heartfelt,’” and “wishes she could have read more of the condolences sent to the fund, which she describes as a tidal wave of ‘love and human kindness.’” (“In wake of bombing horror, they went to work,” By Peter Schworm, The Boston Globe, June 15, 22013)

The “tidal wave of ‘love and human kindness’” was helped by a constant stream of media stories on the loss, grief, pain, struggles, and spirit of the victims and their loved ones, and on the selfless heroism of the first responders who aided them. The injuries, faces, words and humanity of those killed and injured and their families were readily visible in the media, and led to the empathetic “tidal wave” of caring that made ‘BOSTON STRONG’ in response to the devastating bombings.

Empathy is what makes Boston—and America—‘STRONG.’ It is the capacity to identify with other people, and when they are victims, feel their pain and loss and outrage at injustice, and do for them what you would have them do for you. The Golden Rule, that great humanistic teaching of all major religions, presupposes the capacity to be empathetic. Tragically, the empathy of many Americans does not extend beyond the victims of Boston’s Boylston Street, which reveals the worst about America—and helps to explain why the horrific bombings occurred in the first place.

Just nine days before the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, 11 Afghan children and a woman were killed by air strikes of the US-led coalition. The Huffington Post published Associated Press photos, which “showed villagers gathered for the funerals of the children whose bodies were swaddled in blankets,” and “a garland of flowers adorned the head of a dead baby.” (“Afghanistan” NATO Air Strike Kills 11 Children,” By Kim Gamel, Apr. 7, 2013) Few of the AP photos appeared in America’s mainstream newspapers, including The Boston Globe. And one would look far and wide to see if any dominant media reported humanizing information about the victims, such as the names of the children and woman, what they were like and liked, their dreams, and the terrible grief and loss and anger their unconscionable deaths evoked in their families, friends and community.

How much are the lives of these Afghan children and the woman—and countless other victims of U.S. aggression– worth? “Today in Afghanistan, according to a Pentagon spokesperson, condolence payments can be up to $5,000 for [the] death or injury” of civilians. (“Hearts, Minds and Dollars: Condolence Payments in the Drone Strike Age,” by Cora Currier, ProPublica, Apr. 5, 2013) How is such evil toward The Other justified? “’it’s hard to digest that the value of a human life is a few thousand dollars,’ said Gordon-Bray, the general in Iraq.” However, he seemed to digest it fairly well in adding, “But you know that in their economic situation, it is the equivalent of much more, and you feel better.”(Ibid)

On April 18, after the 11 Afghan children and woman were killed and buried, President Obama came to Boston and spoke at an interfaith service following the Marathon bombings. He affirmed Bostonians and their patriotic history, said America was with them, stated everyone’s prayers were with the bombing victims and their loved ones, and lauded the heroic work of the first responders and medical staff. He declared that the “discipline” and “real power” and “love” of all involved was “the message we send to those who carried this act out and anyone who would do harm to our people. Yes, we will find you. And,” he added to applause, “yes, you will face justice.” He condemned “the perpetrators of such senseless violence—these small, stunted individuals who would destroy instead of build, and think somehow that makes them important. . . . what they don’t understand,” he went on, “ [is] our faith in each other, our love for each other, our love for country, our common creed that cuts across whatever superficial differences there may be—that is our power. . . . That’s why,” he said, “a bomb can’t beat us. . . . That’s why we don’t cower in fear. We carry on. . . . We build, and we work, and we love—and we raise our kids to do the same.” He ended with, “Tomorrow, the sun will rise over Boston . . . over this country that we love. This special place. This state of grace.” His final words were met with applause: “May God hold close those who’ve been taken from us too soon. May He comfort their families. And may He continue to watch over these United States of America.” (“Transcript: Obama’s remarks at interfaith service for Boston bombing victims,” New York Daily News, Apr. 18, 2013)

“These small, stunted individuals who would destroy instead of build.” At about the very time President Obama spoke these words in Boston, the sun rose over the village of Wessab in Yemen, and was followed by a U.S. drone strike that killed five people. It was the family village of Farea al-Muslimi, an activist and journalist, who testified about that and other drone strikes before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. His words would have provided a reality check for those interfaith worshippers listening to Obama’s speech. Al-Muslimi stated, “This is not an isolated incident. The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis.” He became specific: “I have spoken to many victims of U.S. drone strikes, like a mother in Jaar who had to identify her innocent 18-year-old son’s body through a video in a stranger’s cell phone, or the father in Shaqra who held his four- and six-year-old children as they died in his arms.” He also “spoke with one of the tribal leaders present in 2009 at the place where U.S. cruise missiles targeted the village of al-Majalah in Lawdar, Abyan,” where “more than 40 civilians were killed, including four pregnant women.” (“Yemeni Activist Farea al-Muslimi Urges U.S. to Stop Drone War in His Country,” www.democracynow.org, Apr. 25, 2013)

“Discipline” and “real power” and “love,” President Obama told his interfaith audience after the Boston Marathon bombings. Farea al-Muslimi put it this way: “What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America in Wessab.” (Ibid)

“These small, stunted individuals who would destroy instead of build.” It is about Yemen—and much more. It is about the Obama administration killing children and other civilians with drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. About the Pentagon “’counting all military-age males in a strike zone as militants,’ barring ‘explicit’ posthumous (italics added) intelligence proving their innocence”—to hide, and make more palatable, the number killed by this ongoing war crime. It is about “Obama’s remarkable transformation from anti-war Senator to drone-warrior-in-chief.” (“Report: Obama Redefines ‘Militant’ to Avoid Counting Civilian Drone Deaths,” Yahoo, May 30, 2012) It is about the criminal assassination, without due process, of American cleric Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, and two weeks later the assassination of his 16-year-old American son, Abdulrahman.

“These small, stunted individuals who would destroy instead of build.” The litany of our government’s war crimes is long. It is about the Bush administration using the horrible 9/11 attacks against America as a pretext for declaring a global war on terrorism, followed by the illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. No “mushroom cloud”- threatening weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, which was President George W. Bush’s hyped falsehood for invading the country. But unimaginable suffering can now be found there, with over a million civilians estimated to have been killed, some four million uprooted, with more than two million widows and over four million orphans. And a devastating sectarian war now raging, triggered by Bush’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom” It is about some 1000 U.S. military bases around the world, not to protect Americans, but to guard and advance policies that exploit other countries’ resources, enriching corporate America and keeping their political servants in power.

If the government were really committed to protecting Americans, instead of invading and devastating countries, our National Guards and other military, with their resources, would be at home, fighting the fires in the West that are destroying homes and land and wildlife and threatening water supplies. They would also be assisting citizens in the Midwest deluged by devastating floods.

It is not about American qualities of building and “love,” but about a permanent “war on terror that creates endless enemies, thus guaranteeing ongoing profits for America’s military-industrial-energy complex—the bombs exploding on Boston’s Boylston Street helping to ensure endless war and serving to justify America’s growing authoritarian, militaristic surveillance state. It is about the National Security Agency’s unchecked surveillance program, the motivation not just being to protect the security of Americans, but to secure them so that dissent against the government’s crimes can be monitored, detected and squashed. It is about the political-corporate control of unemployment and under-employment that helps to feed the U.S. war machine, guaranteeing that enough Americans are forced to turn to the military to “be all that you can be”—as a draft would backfire against American warmongering.

In the light of all of this evil, President Obama could come to Boston after the shocking Marathon bombings and get away with saying, “You’ve shown us, Boston that in the face of evil, Americans will lift up what is good. In the face of cruelty, we will choose compassion,” he went on. “In the face of those who would visit death upon the innocents, we will choose to save and to comfort and to heal. We’ll choose friendship. We’ll choose love.” (“Transcript: Obama’s remarks at interfaith service for Boston bombing victims,” Ibid)

Why can President Obama get away with such hypocrisy? Why could not his interfaith audience in Boston, and so many other Americans not see that the greatest threat to their security is their own government—and president? What prevents so many from making the connection between Boston and Baghdad—and Afghanistan and numerous other U.S.-controlled and-oppressed countries? Why the inability to feel empathy for the victims of U.S. aggression? Why the resistance to seeing the connection between American imperialism in their name and the blowback violence against them?

American exceptionalism is believed to rear its ugly head here. Polls show that most Americans believe “America is the greatest nation in the world”—an ethnocentric belief repeatedly reinforced by presidents to justify violating the sovereignty of and military aggression against other countries, with George W. Bush heading the list in the recent past. The other side of this ethnocentric coin is Christocentricism, with The Bible used to bless the divine favoritism of America. A revered passage here are the words of Jesus, who said to his followers, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. . . . Let your light so shine before men that they will see your good works and give glory to your Father who is is in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14-16) The”Founding Fathers” believed their god led them to a new land of “milk and honey,” to create a nation like “a city set on a hill.” And believing in divinely inspired “manifest destiny,” they and their descendants let their “light” and “good works” shine all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Tragically, America’s “light” and “good works” called for the indigenous peoples’ to be cast into outer darkness. Similarly, the true “light” that illuminated the early Americans’ pathway and “good works” spelled deep darkness for millions of enslaved black persons, many of whose descendants still live in the shadows of America’s white-controlled hierarchy of access to economic, political and legal power. With Christocentric belief in Jesus as the only true “light of the world” baptizing and blessing American exceptionalism for many.

The Boston Marathon bombings brought out the best in Americans, with empathy overflowing on Boylston Street, revealing the power of love Bostonians and other Americans expressed for the victims and for one another. Tragically, the empathy stopped there, and reveals the worst about America. The lack of empathy is not just about Baghdad, but about neighborhoods in Boston itself– and beyond.

Different kinds of bombs are being dropped on people in need in Boston neighborhoods. Various studies continue to document the explosive effect of poverty on people of color especially. One study on poverty in Boston found that “households at or below poverty and those with very low educational attainment are concentrated in the Roxbury/Dorchester/Mattapan neighborhoods of Boston . . . With 42% of its children in poverty, this area represents Massachusetts’ largest concentration of child poverty.” The study revealed that “Boston’s recent economic dynamism reflects an increase in wealthy, well-educated residents rather than a decline in poverty, with widening inequality and stark racial/ethnic disparities.” How stark? “More than one-third of families of color had annual incomes of less than $25,000—and10% had incomes of less than $10,000—while almost half of Boston’s white families had annual incomes of $100,000 or more and just 10% had incomes of less than $25,000.” (“The Measure of Poverty: A Boston Indicators Project Special Report,” a Special Initiative of the Boston Foundation and Greater Boston’s Civic Community, 2011)

A Boston Globe story on the above findings entitled, “Poverty worsening in Hub, study says,” quotes a civic leader who states that his organization has documented similar findings. The story cites “Darnell Williams, who heads the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.” He “said the Boston study on poverty supports his organization’s recent findings on the state of black Boston, which found African-Americans lagging in education and in economic and social progress.” (By Meghan E. Irons, Nov. 9, 2011)

Another study, not yet released, was referenced in a Boston Globe op ed piece, and directed at Boston’s current mayoral hopefuls. Called “Poverty must be top priority for candidates,” the piece cited “a recent analysis by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies,” which “found that poverty in Boston has grown over the past two decades, while incomes of the richest Bostonians have skyrocketed.” How much? “From 2009 to 2011, the top 10 percent of Boston families obtained as much income before taxes as the bottom 75 percent of Boston families combined.” The analysis also disclosed a tale of two cities: “While we have seen impressive results in some neighborhoods being rebuilt and many positive changes in Boston over the past 20 years . . . some neighborhoods are teetering on the brink from foreclosures, crime, and a lack of investment.” (By Don Gillis and Andy Sum, Aug. 17, 2013)

On the national level, the Economic Policy Institute released a new report that concluded, “The failure of the economy to provide a living wage to a majority of its workers has created a decade of stagnation.” According to the report, “The central problem . . . is that ‘wage and benefit growth of the vast majority’ of workers has remained steady—or even declined—amid rising costs of living while the ‘fruits of overall growth have accrued disproportionally to the richest households’ in the country.” The report found that “the cause of this situation . . . began just as Ronald Reagan was about to be ushered into power in 1979 and is ‘the result of intentional policy decisions—including globalization, deregulation, weaker unions, and lower labor standards such as a weaker minimum wage—that have undercut job quality for low- and middle-wage workers.” While “these policies have all been portrayed to the public as giving American consumers goods and services at lower prices’ . . . their real impact has been to cut earning power and upward mobility . . . making widely shared prosperity an impossibility.” (“US Economic Policy: Keeping Wages Flat Since 1979,” by Jon Queally, staff writer, Common Dreams, Aug. 22, 2013)

The political decisions causing America’s worsening poverty are also seen in a recent study conducted by the Health Impact Project, “a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.” The report found that “nearly half a million people who receive food stamps but still do not get enough to eat would lose their eligibility for the program under cuts proposed by House Republicans.” And “an additional 160,000 to 305,000 recipients who get enough to eat would also lose their eligibility and the ability to adequately feed themselves. In total,” the report found, “about 5.1 million people would be eliminated from the program.” Furthermore, “the cuts to the program, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP], would not only affect the ability of low-income people to feed themselves but would also increase poverty. The report revealed the dire implications for SNAP recipients: “The combination of poverty and a lack of food would lead to increases in illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure among adults,” and “in children, the cuts would lead to higher rates of asthma and depression.” The Health Impact Report director, Aaron Wernham presented the conflict that no American, or anyone else, should have to face: “It’s a trade-off between paying for rent, medicine or food.” He then zeroed in on the politics—and devastating effects– of poverty: “Policy makers need to understand what the health impacts are going to be if they make the kinds of changes they are considering to the SNAP program.” (“House Republican Proposal Would Cut Food Stamps For 5 Million, Study Finds,” By Ron Nixon, The New York Times, July 31, 2013)

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren points to the politics of poverty, writing, “Big oil companies—some of the most profitable companies on the planet—are still guzzling down billions of dollars in subsidies, while Head Start and Meals on Wheels funding are cut in sequestration.” She continues, “Millionaires and billionaires still don’t pay their fair share of taxes, but student loans continue to increase and the policy of the federal government is now to profit off our young people getting a higher education. In other words,” she adds, “The game is rigged to make the rich and powerful more rich and powerful. (“Two Years On,” By Elizabeth Warren, Reader Supported News, Aug. 17, 22013)

In America today, it is about austerity for the 99% and prosperity for the 1%. Getting buried by poverty is another political reality: a full stomach feeds a hungry mind; whereas, an empty stomach can fuel the digestive system with violence.

Following the Boston Marathon bombings, The Boston Globe published a story on the black community’s response to the bombings. The story quoted local NAACP president Michael Curry, who said, “Without question in communities of color, our hearts go out to the families of those impacted by the bombing of the Boston Marathon, particularly the [Richard] family.” Curry then pointed to the lack of empathy toward people of color who are continued victims of violence: “Our message as a branch is how can we be supportive to these families, while also raising awareness around the impact of violence in communities of color that also demands that level of response” (italics added). Curry’s words were echoed by other “residents in the neighborhoods . . . torn watching on the sidelines as charities [are] established for bombing victims raising millions, access to counseling is readily available, and health insurers vow to waive out-of-pocket costs to members hurt in the blasts.” The story also reported that “since the bombings, six people have been shot and killed, and at least 23 people have been shot in Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury, police said.”(“Marathon bombing response spurs questions,” By Meghan E. Irons, May 6, 2013)

Economic bombs are being dropped on The Other in Boston neighborhoods—and beyond—by the same political mentality that has dropped bombs on The Other in Iraq and Afghanistan and Yemen and elsewhere. Tragically there is also blowback violence in the distressed neighborhoods of Boston and other parts of America— born of poverty and no exit, implosions of anguish and anger, the resulting violence turned inward and on each other. The result: shooting and stabbing victims are readily admitted to Boston hospitals, with shocked loved ones and friends flocking to their side. Some victims survive, and others don’t. What about them? Their struggles and aspirations? What feelings of personal loss do their loved ones experience? How do they pay their medical and other bills? And keep going? What are their human feelings? What kind of assistance do they need? How are they being perceived—if at all?

Unfortunately, denied equal access to the total range of what would bring out the best in them, too many youths of color buy into the economic, political and historical conditioning that they represent The Other in America. The cultural legitimacy of guns and the level of societal- and self-negation lead these youths to use power to intimidate, control and bully to gain access to the economic supply chain. They model America’s 1%. The talk and behavior in the streets is the same as in the suites—a condition unlikely to change with the politics of austerity combined with corporate greed.

Youths of color—and their white peers—desperately need a new movement of teachers, politicians, religious leaders, and labor and other community activists to model for them a different America. This model needs to also include youths themselves, like those who engaged in the civil rights sit-ins, those who challenged the Vietnam War, and those who continue to dissent and sit-in to make America a land of promise and fulfillment for all its citizens. An America about which civil rights activist Vincent Harding wrote, “We must strive for a new and informed humanity, and not equal opportunity in a dehumanized society.” (There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, Mariner Books, Reissue edition Jan. 15, 1993) Then there will be no “political orphans,” just one America.

‘BOSTON [and America] STRONG’ is about empathy—that depends on connecting the political dots. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offers this prophetic lesson on empathy in a 1967 speech on the Vietnam War at New York’s Riverside Church. He said that he “could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” He then went to the heart of The Other:

As I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the peoplewho have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries. (“Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, Information Clearing House)

Dr. King’s dream of brotherhood and sisterhood included all people: “black . . . white . . . Jews . . . Gentiles . . . Protestants . . . Catholics”– and the “broken cries” of the Vietnamese. (“I Have A Dream Speech, www.huffingtonpost.com, Posted 1/17, 2011) He would revere the Boston Marathon victims, “
“the oppressed in the ghettos,” and the continuing victims of the still “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

‘BOSTON STRONG’ is about the people on Boylston Street, and those in the neighborhoods nearby and beyond, and the villagers in Vietnam and Yemen and elsewhere. It is about The Golden Rule, not the rule of gold. About empathy, not empire. About humanness that has no borders of the mind and heart.

Mel King, a faculty member at M.I.T., is a long-time Boston community activist, organizer, educator, author and political leader, who served in the Massachusetts State Legislature for 10 years. He is the author of Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development, South End Press, 1981, co-author with James Jennings of From Access to Power: Black Politics in Boston, Schenkman Books, 1986, and author of Streets, a Poem Book published by Hugs Press, Boston, 2006. His e-mail address is mhking@mit.edu.

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, is available on Amazon.com. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.