Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Do some deaths matter more?

After so many years in Turkey, becoming a bit detached from developments (even important ones) back home seems almost unavoidable. I'm embarrassed to admit how little I understood last year's "individual mandate" debate and despite being a firm supporter of equal rights, I found it hard to get as fired up as I wanted to over the recent gay marriage battle in the U.S. But the news of last week's Boston Marathon attack hit me like a punch in the stomach. As a once-and-hopefully-future runner and someone who's cheered others on from plenty of race sidelines, it was all too easy to imagine myself in that crowd -- joy, relief, and excitement turning to confusion, panic, and terror in an instant.

Since this tragic event, there's been plenty of discussion about whether the four deaths in Boston are getting a disproportionate amount of attention (especially from Americans) while other tragic events happening at the same time seem to provoke little grieving. Though I've expressed my frustration before at the way both the American and Turkish press zero in on countrymen affected by terrorist acts or natural disasters nearly to the point of relegating all other victims to a footnote, I don't think nationalism or even small-mindedness are the only factors at work here.

As Joshua Keating writes for Foreign Policy:
It's not reasonable to expect people to care equally about every tragedy in the world at all times. And the fact that we tend to empathize more with victims we can more easily relate to in situations we might have found ourselves in, seems not so much callous as simply human.
Heartwarming messages of support from runners in Beirut and tributes to the Boston victims at subsequent marathons in London and Bethlehem show that the common bond of running creates cross-cultural kinship. In the same way that my living in Turkey has caused my friends back home to pay more attention when the country is in the news, I know that my past visits to, say, Tunisia and Lebanon mean that I feel events there more keenly than I do similar ones in other countries.

Rather than contempt, familiarity can breed compassion. If there's anything "wrong" with Americans, I would argue that it's not empathy we lack but the personal experience in and connections with other parts of the world that would bring tragedies elsewhere closer to home.