Life, Death and Compassion – Lost in Translation

by Daniel Bolton

ANY loss of human life is a tragedy. An unnecessary loss of life is a wasteful tragedy (although, admittedly, one enters dangerous territory on the subject of necessity.) I believe, perhaps controversially, that the loss of one human life should be considered no less tragic than the loss of any other or, for that matter, than two, three, ten or a thousand lives. Granted, the loss of a thousand people’s lives may be circumstantially far more shocking in nature than that of an individual but I do not believe that the tragedy of losing a human life is an exponential quantity. That said, circumstances under which a death may occur seems to have a sizeable bearing on the evocative nature of an event. The bombings that took place in Boston on Monday and their aftermath highlighted, for me at least, two things. The first was heart-warming, uplifting and empowering; the instant reaction of the people of Boston to the affected members of their community. The bystanders sprinting to the aid of the injured at the scene, seconds after the blasts. The runners who continued to put one foot in front of the other, long after completing their own races, to get to local hospitals to supply blood. Or the thousands of Bostonites offering their own homes as refuge for those evacuated from the city centre. These people and this community exhibit once more the compassion, care and kindness that we have seen of human beings in seemingly all too familiar desperate circumstances of the recent past. Secondly, the chaotic and terrible events of Monday highlighted the widespread impact and subsequent empathetic out-pour from unaffected members of the public around the world.

Although I would like to say that the various posts and publications I encountered online, from friends and public figures alike, stirred in me the same great pride in human compassion as the acts of  those at the scene of the devastation, I cannot. Instead I am filled with cynicism and doubt. It is at times like these, times of horror, fear and chaos, that human kindness and compassion can burn brightest, as we have seen far too many times before. And while stories of competitors and spectators at the Boston marathon, coming selflessly to the aid of the casualties stand out as demonstrations of this collective, compassionate humanity, what interests me is the response of those around the world who were neither in Boston yesterday (let alone the United States), nor have any connection to it whatsoever.

Despite not sharing the faith in prayer that many millions of religious people have, I am very well acquainted with the positive impacts that kind words and thoughts can have on those who need them most. Therefore it is at this point that I’d like to make clear that I am not setting out to doubt or attack the sincerity of those kind words, thoughts or prayers in response to the explosions in Boston, nor the uplifting and supportive effect they can have. Rather, I want to question what stimulates those uninvolved and unaffected to post or publish their sympathies on social media.

Nearly 24 hours after the bloody conclusion of the Boston Marathon, the ripples of the ghastly news are still, if barely, visible on social media networks around the world, with ‘Boston’ still trending globally on twitter. In the UK, eyes turn to London’s own marathon, due to take place on Sunday. As a ‘mark of respect and compassion’ to the people in Boston affected by the explosions that took place on Monday, competitors in London have been encouraged to cross the finish line abiding by the hash tag ‘#handsonhearts’. London police are working closely with the organisers to guarantee security for the event that some are surprised is still going ahead. However Twitter and Facebook feeds outside the United States have gone, perhaps unsurprisingly, quiet relative to peoples outpouring of sympathy.

On the very same day as the Boston bombing, a string of attacks that took place across Iraq killed at least 55 people, on what is the deadliest day in a  month, 25 of the victims were killed in Baghdad alone. On Tuesday a further 9 people were killed in another car bombing and an earthquake that took place at the Iran-Pakistan border has, according to Iranian press, killed at least 40. I am yet to see or hear a single post or comment from my own social networks referring to either of these horrific events in the same tone as those published in relation to Boston. One cannot help but question, ‘Why?’

One may argue that the disastrous effects of an earthquake although horrifying and tragic do not carry the same gravitas as an act of mass murder, which may be an acceptable distinction between the responses to the Iran disaster and Boston bombings. It does not however account for the void in sympathy for the citizens of Baghdad and the citizens of Boston. As a British citizen, one cannot deny the influence of the United States on British culture, politics and public perception. We share many things with our American counterparts and it seems that language stands conceivably as the foundation for almost all of our interactions and similarities. It is hard to deny that our relationships with non-English-speaking nations wane in comparison. Does then our compassion for those we are completely disconnected from stem from the similarities we share with them?

Of course, the point is not that we feel limited or no compassion for those who are not like ourselves or with whom we cannot relate but instead that our levels of empathy are heightened for those that need no translation. It could be said that there is an outlook present in the culture of the western world that what is culturally different is very much out of sight and out of mind until it is dragged into our living rooms by the media. There is on any given day an astonishingly long list of atrocities taking place throughout the world that we are either ignorant to or do not understand. The vast majority of people I encountered expressing sadness or kindness towards the victims in Boston have no more a connection to anyone involved than they do to the 55 Iraqis killed on the same day. It would be wrong of anyone to make comparisons between the pain and anguish suffered on either side relative to the loss of life in each circumstance, as is made clear at the head of this post, any unnecessary death is a monstrous tragedy. It is not wrong however to question why our sympathies are so biased.

It could be suggested that the circumstances in which the explosions in Boston took place justify the widespread public shock and subsequent surging out-pour of compassion. For an attack on the innocent, civilian citizens in their own seemingly stable and safe environment is, indubitably, a shocking thing to witness. For an innocent child to lose their life in such circumstances, as 8-year-old Martin Richard did in Boston, is crushingly sickening. 3 innocent people died in Boston on Monday in an atrocious act of violence that was more than likely carried out by a radical, misguided and indoctrinated minority, based on some grossly warped notion of retaliative justification. What is upsetting is the events that unfolded in Massachusetts on Monday are taking place frequently and in a far bloodier fashion around the world, with little or no acknowledgement from the general public of the western world. One must conclude then that it cannot be the violence of an act that evokes response but rather how easily we as a public can imagine the horror. Sadly, the idea of the daily struggle and fear of Iraqi civilian life is something nearly all of us would struggle to entertain. We haven’t known ten years of war, we haven’t been subjected to the whims of a brutal dictatorship and our actual interaction with terrorist groups has been minimal. The world of violence, struggle and fear is not one we are well acquainted with yet stands as an excuse for our ignorance. Instead it should be our motivation to learn of it. Our position in the world has so far meant that we have only encountered the cruel world of terrorism on less than a handful of occasions albeit painful and destructive ones. We forget how fortunate we are relative to those who endure the tyranny and cruelty of fear on a daily basis.

We have become numb to the cruelty that is inflicted on those who live in a ritual of daily terrorism. That is until occasions such as in Boston on Monday that jolt us back into the stark and harsh reality of terrorism’s destructive nature. It is hypocritical and ignorant of us to reserve our compassion, kindness and humanity for when it affects those with whom we relate. 3 people needlessly lost their lives in a nation we know well and seized the thoughts and prayers of the public of the western world. When dozens of people lose their lives in a state we know collectively little about on the very same day, the response is almost non-existent.

No loss of life should be lost in translation. We who are not directly affected by tragic events around the world, who are detached, unconnected, unrelated spectators of great hardships, should feel an obligation to distribute the compassion, kindness, thoughts and prayers in equal measure to those who need them most. Kindness dealt proportionately is not true kindness at all.

Compassion coupled with ignorance makes for apparently disingenuous sentiments. The outpouring of kindness and support for those affected at the Boston marathon demonstrates how with the right stimulation, empathy from completely unconnected individuals is fairly forthcoming. When it’s juxtaposed to the incredible loss of life across Iraq on the very same day to little or no response, it cheapens the messages of support that were no doubt made with the best intentions.

That said one must address why those who are of the majority that have no connection or direct influence to the victims of the Boston bombing would feel the need to make a post to their own social circles, who are as liable to have as little connection or influence on the situation. This social pressure to make clear one’s damning of a bad act stands as an unnecessary identification of ones moral standing. Given the broad moral codes society tends to abide by, irrespective of variable cultural nuances, to state that what occurred in Boston on Monday was a ‘bad’ thing would seem to be a pointless exercise. One would assume that we are as a society, collectively appalled by what unfolded. However, when some affable individual feels it necessary to express their distaste, upset or introspection about an event such as that of Monday’s bombings, all they achieve in their broadcast is a simple expression that they think what occurred was morally reprehensible. And, unless one can guarantee that such a broadcast can bring directly some comfort or aid to a victim of a tragedy like this (which depends very much on the audience of the broadcast), then making a statement of this nature really does nothing but confirm to oneself and any potential doubters that one’s moral compass is still in good nick. Put simply, if your opinion or thoughts of the Boston bombings doesn’t bring solace to those who endured them, there really isn’t much purpose in expressing those thoughts. Instead, one should perhaps think of why one felt it necessary to share such a thought. If such an apocryphal thought enters one’s head, perhaps consider the sharing of it unnecessary in the grand scheme of things.

Any loss of human life is a tragedy and our compassion in response to it should not proportional to our ability to relate to the victims. As hard as the boundaries of culture and experience seem to overcome in sharing that compassion, they are obstacles to be overcome by necessity. The reactive, instinctual humanity of those at the scene of Mondays tragedies can be replicated and exhibited by all to all, in kind words and thoughts so long as they aren’t reserved for those with whom they are comfortable to share them.