Opinionista Simon Allison 17 April 2013

Why have the Boston bombings hit us so hard?

On Monday at least 42 people died in a series of car bombs and blasts in Iraq. They died at roughly the same time as three people died in the Boston bombings. The scale of the blasts that tore through runners and spectators at the finish line of the Boston marathon was, relatively speaking, nothing special in the big picture of terror attacks, yet every major publication in the world has the Boston bombings as its lead story. Why the imbalance in coverage? And why has Boston struck such a strong emotional chord?

I woke up to the news of the bombing in Boston. Actually, my wife woke me up. “Simon, you need to see this,” she said, and together we read the reports, looked at the gruesome pictures and watched the videos which could easily be clips from a movie. We were horrified, and we were not alone. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could not be shocked and saddened by the needless waste of human life at an event designed to celebrate it. Our feelings were echoed on both national and international media, which carried reports of the bombings on loop with constant updates, as well as social media where friends, colleagues and acquaintances expressed their sadness or outrage.

But then an odd thing occurred to me. As a journalist whose livelihood comes from keeping up to date with international news, I know that the Boston bombings are nothing particularly special in today’s world. Only a couple of explosions? Just three dead? Relatively speaking, this is a small-scale attack. On Sunday, for example, 20 people were killed in Mogadishu in a coordinated attack. Last month, 41 people were killed in a suicide bombing in Nigeria. And on Monday – the same day as the Boston attack, and almost the same time – at least 42 people died in a series of car bombs and blasts in Iraq.

In fact, hardly a week goes by without an attack or terrorist incident occurring somewhere in the world that is on the same scale or larger than the Boston bombings. So why are these touching such an emotional chord? Why are these receiving so much more attention? Why is every major publication in the world, and South Africa, leading with the Boston bombings instead of the far more deadly Iraq attacks?

Without justifying the imbalance in coverage and attention, here a few reasons why I think Boston has had such an impact:

There are great visuals

In an interview with Time Magazine, Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki, who was there in Boston when the bombs went off, relayed how a police officer approached and said to him: “Do me a favour. Do not exploit the situation.” It’s unclear whether Tlumacki heeded the policeman, but by then he had already captured some photos which may well go on to become iconic: the runner prone on the floor, surrounded by panicked cops; the young man comforting an injured woman, a blood-spattered American flag in the foreground; an injured boy being rushed off the scene in a wheelchair.

Already, there is no shortage of iconic visuals from Boston. On the scene were dozens of cameramen (professional and amateur), as well as top quality video feeds broadcasting to a global audience. Of course there were; this was an iconic sporting event, which must have been a large part of the motivation for targeting it.

This is important for two reasons. One, it gives news organisations something to broadcast. In the digital era, stories are inevitably weighted disproportionately in favour of those with accompanying visuals. Two, it makes the story far more real to viewers. Images, especially graphic ones, tend to have a greater emotional impact than text. Tlumacki, in taking pictures of the scene, was not being callous; he was doing his job and telling the story. Not all stories come with this kind of imagery, and this can affect how and if they are told.

We know Boston, and America

A lot has been said and written about America’s cultural influence over the world, its “soft power”, but it is rarely manifested more obviously than in the global reactions to American stories. We know America, or think we do, from the countless movies we watch, music we listen to, food we eat. And, specifically, we know Boston. Think of the TV series set there: Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Cheers, Dawson’s Creek. Or the movies: Boondock Saints, The Departed, Goodwill Hunting, Moneyball. For much of the English-speaking world, Boston is a cultural reference point – which means what happens there resonates much harder with us. It is familiar, unlike places like Somalia and Afghanistan which seem so far removed from our everyday lives that it is far more difficult to empathise when tragedies occur there.

International media inevitably favours American stories

International media is dominated by American and European outlets. This is slowly changing – China, for example, is putting a huge amount of money into making its state-run wires and channels into world-class competitors – but for now, big stories in America are almost guaranteed to get international attention. The comparatively huge number of both local and international journalists who cover America also ensures that there will be plenty of media coverage for big stories like this, and lots of it very good.

In a situation like Boston, this does two things: first, it fills the airwaves with detail and interviews and analysis, all of which contribute to our understanding of the event and influence our personal reaction to it; second, the sheer weight of coverage signals to readers and viewers that this is a momentous and hugely important story. A quick analysis of the front pages of the world’s top news sites bears this out: CNN, BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times, and Al-Jazeera all lead with multiple stories about the Boston bombings, along with videos and galleries. The Iraq bombings, if mentioned, are contained in one story halfway down the page. As a reader, this seems to be a clear indication of which story is more significant.

Our sense of security is violated

Part of the reason that the bombing in Mogadishu attracted so little attention, relatively speaking, was because our perception of Somalia is that it is a country where violence is endemic and these kinds of things happen all the time. Same with northern Nigeria, or Colombia, or Iraq; these are often considered (not always with complete justification) to be dangerous countries with ineffective governments, the kinds of places where we expect violence to occur.

This is not true of America, still the world’s pre-eminent superpower and one of the most heavily-secured countries on the planet. If there is one place where people should be safe, it is in a country with a large, functioning and generally effective state that spends more than any other to secure its people and borders. If it could happen in Boston, at an innocuous event like a marathon, then it could happen anywhere. If it happens in Iraq, on the other hand – well, it seems to happen all the time in Iraq.

Put it in a South African perspective. If you get burgled in your un-burglar barred, un-alarmed house in a dodgy suburb, people will be sympathetic but not surprised. If you get burgled in your supposedly secure complex, people are shocked, and scared, because it means that it could happen just as easily to them, and there isn’t much they can do about it.

Fear of the consequences

This is the most serious terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. And what happened after that? America launched a disastrous invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq which ultimately claimed far more lives than the initial attack, completely changing the international political landscape in the process. Will the Boston attacks have a similarly dramatic impact? Probably not – but there will be repercussions.

America cannot really afford any more wars, but that there will be international consequences we shouldn’t doubt for a moment. Barack Obama has already promised that whoever is responsible will feel “the full weight of justice”, and we well know by now that American justice includes torture, extraordinary rendition and Guantanamo Bay. And, even though no claims of responsibility have been put forward, American Muslims are already experiencing an increase in xenophobia and religious intolerance as a small minority of their fellow Americans start searching for a scapegoat.

Once a credible suspect does emerge, Obama’s administration will be under huge pressure to act decisively, which in this particular situation is code for violently: something needs to get bombed. If and how Obama chooses to respond to this pressure could once again change the course of international relations in the near future.

A bombing is a bombing, a tragedy is a tragedy, a death is a death. But, as the coincidence of the Boston and Iraq bombings occurring on the same day tells us, not all disasters are created equal. DM


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