The Boston Bombing, Compassion, and Entertainment

by Benjamin Studebaker

It’s been a tough week for America. A few days ago, the Boston Marathon was bombed. Then, yesterday, a Texas fertilizer plant blew up. At the time of writing, we know the Boston bombing was deliberate, but we do not know who did it. It killed 3 people. We do not know the cause of the fertilizer plant explosion. It may have been an accident or it may have been deliberate. We know it killed 14. In both cases, over 100 were injured. A lot of people said that the stories of heroism and compassion in response to the Boston bombing reinforced a positive view of humanity. I have come away with the opposite impression, and it’s not directly due to any element of the response to the Boston bombing–so far, that response has been, as far as I can tell, quite good. No, this reinforces a negative view of humanity for me not because of the reaction to the Boston bombing itself, but because of the comparative lack of reaction to the Texas explosion. Let me explain further.

I found out about the Boston bombing on Facebook. It was all anyone was talking about. “Pray for Boston” was a common sentiment. There was an outpouring of compassion. We were all part of the conversation. It was and remains a national subject. Even the late night comedians went off their scripts and talked about it.

I found out about the Texas explosion on television. I was watching Craig Ferguson, and a brief “CBS Special Report” interrupted to inform me that it happened. As soon as I found out, I posted it to my Facebook, anticipating a similar outpouring of sympathy, a similar national discussion. The early reports from Texas had put the fatality figures as high as 60, and although we now believe it was merely 14 dead, it’s still several times more deaths than in Boston. The Texas explosion happened overnight, so I went to bed expecting to wake up to a world gripped once again in tragedy.

When I checked my Facebook the following morning, not a single Facebook friend had posted about Texas. Nor had any of the pages who, a mere couple days ago, had expressed so much compassion. Only the news organisations posted about it. No one else. And the size of their comment threads? A mere fraction of what we witnessed in the hours after the Boston bombing. It is not as if I woke up early–this was around 11 AM. And in the ensuing hours since then, as I continue to look at my Facebook, no additional people have posted. Not one single “Pray for Texas”.

Now, I’m sure there are some people on various social networks expressing sympathy for the victims of the Texan explosion. You can find them on Twitter, if you look. The fact remains that their numbers are much, much fewer. Most people have nothing at all to say about the Texan explosion, whereas, just a couple days ago, they had quite a bit to say about Boston. Why might this be? I was curious, so I asked my Facebook friends. The answer?

It was probably an industrial accident, not a potential terrorist attack.

What sort of answer is that? Imagine being killed in an explosion. Imagine it happening in slow motion. In that moment, you don’t know why you’re being killed. You don’t know if it’s an accident or if it was on purpose. You have no idea what’s going on. If you know anything, it is that you are dying. You don’t understand why or how. There is only pain–the physical pain of being blown apart, and perhaps, if you realise what’s happening in time, the psychological pain of leaving the world, one’s family, one’s friends. A terrible, horrible thing has happened to you, regardless of whether someone blew you up or it was an accident. You are no better off in either case. And if you are not dying, if you are merely injured, you are just as deserving of help.

The more of you there are, the more dead or mangled people, the worse the thing that has happened is. The motivations do not matter. If I could save 12 of the 15 dead Texans by making the Texan explosion an act of murder rather than an accident, I would do it without hesitation. It is far, far worse for 14 people to die in an accident than for 3 to be murdered. Assuming none of the victims were directly related to each other, 12 additional families experience tremendous misery in the Texan case. What happened in Texas is undoubtedly much worse.

Of course, this doesn’t change the way most people responded. If people think about it, I’m sure they will agree that logically, the Texan explosion is the worse incident. Nonetheless, they do not feel as badly about it, because “accidents happen” while mass murder is what? Rarer? More random? More captivating? These are all euphemisms. What people are really trying to say, without out and out admitting it, is that the Boston bombing is more entertaining  to them. It was more fun to watch on the news, to read about, to talk about. The amount of compassion we give to people has nothing to do with how much misery they’ve endured or how many of them there are. It has nothing to do with who deserves that compassion. It has everything to do with how the event affects us directly, how it makes us feel. In order to feel compassion, we have to be drawn into the tragedy, to the drama, to the stories of heroism, to the narrative. There has to be an evil bad guy who did it, and good guys who helped. It has to be something we could make into a movie, a novel, something gripping. It has to entertain us. The Texan bombing happened in the middle of the night. It looks like an accident. We yawn. We are not entertained. We feel nothing. No compassion. Nothing.

“Pray for Boston”. A lot of the people saying that genuinely believe in the power of prayer. If you think prayer works, how can you reserve your prayers only for cases in which you are entertained, in which your own compassion, your own feelings, happen to have been engaged? Many more people have prayed and are praying for the Boston victims than for the Texan ones. If one prays for Boston but not for Texas, if one refuses to use one’s power of prayer to help victims of incidents that do not entertain or engage, if one picks and chooses who you help on the basis of one’s compassion and one’s compassion alone, one denies aid to the deserving. One commits a grave injustice. Imagine the Christian god, listening to all of these people pray for Boston but not for Texas. Does he withhold help for Texans on that basis? Perhaps he is too loving and caring for that. But you know what he might do? He might note all of the people who only prayed when they were entertained, and when the time came, he might send them all to hell.

As for myself? I am not the Christian god. Human nature is the way it is, and I don’t blame people for it. I don’t hold it against people. It’s the way we are. But I do think it represents a remarkable indictment of compassion, of using our emotions and our intuitions to guide our morality. If we only help or care when we feel compassion, and never because helping or caring is reasonable, we will only help when we are entertained, when we are captivated, and we will deny help to many who deserve it. We owe it to ourselves and to the victims of all miseries and maladies to question our intuitions, to question whether our compassion or lack thereof really is justified, and to change our behaviour if we find the reasoning behind our emotions wanting. Caring when we feel compassion is easy. It’s nothing special. It’s not particularly moral. Most everybody does that. It’s no achievement. It’s nothing to feel good about. Caring when we don’t feel compassion, when perhaps we do not even like the victims, that’s hard, that’s valuable, and that’s worth aspiring to.