Last week, two bombs went off in Boston and killed three. An explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas killed 14. A wave of bombings in Iraq killed 42. An earthquake in Iran killed an indeterminate number that was at least in the dozens.
The Boston Marathon bombings, as you will probably notice, resulted in the fewest deaths of any of these events, yet they are what dominates the headlines. Most people are perhaps aware of the fertilizer plant accident, but not more than one in perhaps five could tell you about the events in the Middle East. It would be extraordinarily difficult to find someone unaware that something happened in Boston.
I am hardly the first to take note of this. It has become almost fashionable to make sure to mention at least one of these other tragedies when discussing the Boston bombings.
Faulting this impulse is difficult because it is quite right in one sense. More people did die in the events above than in Boston. More were injured. More families grieved.
But tragedy is not a math problem. Utilitarian calculations have their place in this world, but there is a limit to their usefulness.
The tragedy in Boston is significant not because of its body count but because of the deeper context it falls in.
A terrorist attack, like the one in Boston, is inherently a symbolic act. A terrorist who aims at a mass casualty attack is never really striking at his victims. They don’t matter to him (or her, although it generally ends up being a him). He has no personal grievance against any of them.
He strikes at society itself. To place a pressure cooker loaded with shrapnel in the middle of a crowd sends a very clear statement: I hate you and hope that you die or are injured in a horrific fashion. I do this not because I know you or anything about you, but because your very existence is intolerable to me.
This message was sent to every one of us. It would not have disrupted the Tsarnaev brothers’ plot one bit if one of us on this campus had gone to Boston to watch the marathon and died in the place of someone who actually did.
This even holds true if you are not an American. Lu Lingzi was killed in the attack regardless of her nationality. There was quite clearly no political reason for her to die. Her crime was merely being a human being.
That is why Boston is the bigger deal. It was an attack against all of us. The fertilizer plant in Texas did not hate you. Nor did the fault line in Iran. But the Tsarnaev brothers did and they wanted you to die. It is no shame to find that noteworthy.
This is absolutely not to say that attention should not be paid to tragedies happening elsewhere in the world. It is absolutely terrible what those in Texas, Iraq and elsewhere suffered. I cannot begin to imagine the pain and suffering those affected are feeling right now.
But it does them no disservice to keep the focus on Boston. Humans will naturally gravitate to stories that affect them personally, and for Americans, Boston is not just another news story. Boston is personal.