In the aftermath of the attack on the Boston marathon, commentators such as Jonathan Green on The Drum and Rafia Zakaria at Guernica have discussed the disparity of media attention towards the small number of casualties in the Boston compared to the routine slaughter in locations like Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. I remembered introducing a yoga teacher from New York to Afghan refugees in Pakistan in the weeks following the September 11 attacks. Kevin tried to build bridges by telling them that “my neighbourhood looks like Kabul, now.” While the Afghans were sympathetic, they did not accept Kevin’s comparison.
“No – no. New York is not like Kabul. What happened was terrible, but it was only one day. In Kabul, this has happened over and over again. For years.”
I thought of that exchange when visiting the 9/11 memorial in New York last week, and then again as I absorbed the news from Boston. There can be no memorial to the dead in Afghanistan and Iraq for so long as the bloodshed continues, day after day after day, generating less and less interest from the Australian and American media as time goes by. The memorial in New York ought to prompt us to remember all those who died and continue to die in the wars generated by that event, as well as on the day itself. In the wake of Boston, we need to pay attention to the potential consequences of this home-grown terrorist attack, even as we pay our respects to the dead, the maimed and the bereaved.
As Green says, the obvious explanation for the differing degrees of media attention is that “a bomb blast in Boston is a shock. In Iraq it is commonplace. The more disturbing but no less obvious answer is that we instinctively put a greater value on familiar American lives…”
To Green’s explanation, I would add the observation that deaths in Boston or New York have a disproportionate impact on the lives of those far from the scene. The tragic stories of the casualties of 9/11 – the final phone calls to friends and family, the victims who plunged to their deaths rather than burn in the flames – were the rationale for the maelstrom of violence unleashed upon Afghanistan and Iraq over the subsequent years. The Boston attacks seem unlikely to trigger a similar cataclysm, but the disproportionate media coverage is likely to be reflected by the political response.
The Tsarnaev brothers choreographed their violence to maximise its publicity and the number of terrorised. In contrast, the message of US violence is structured to reach a more selective audience. Drone attacks, Guantanamo Bay prison cells, even the details of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, are kept out of view, lest we should grow squeamish. We should undertake the hard work to protest this hidden war even as we grieve for an eight-year old boy killed as he waited for his father to cross the finish-line in Boston.