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Maintaining empathy as Boston mourns


'Terror at the finish line', Boston Herald front cover shows grief-stricken woman and debris from bomb blastIt makes perfect sense. You go to the hospital to find someone close to you has died or is seriously injured. You can't help but feel a greater empathy for your friend than for patients in adjacent beds or in the same ward, people you barely know.

Perhaps this explains why journalist Miranda Devine's recent piece in response to the Boston Marathon tragedy makes mention of New York, London and Beslan. She also mentions the bravery and human spirit at Bali, though its significance is that the 'Bali bombing killed 88 Australians'. No victims of acts of terror in other places are mentioned.

Devine shouldn't necessarily be criticised for her choice of examples of terrorism. The main point of her article was that when the barbarism of murderous terror strikes a place, victims and bystanders will rally to save other victims wherever possible.

Her failure to mention victims of other countries is indicative of the fact that we relate more to victims with whom we have some kind of cultural, linguistic or other affinity. Chinese newspapers will perhaps be publishing similar opinion pieces given the Chinese student who perished near the marathon finishing line.

On the other hand, one would also feel heightened empathy toward someone with an illness you can relate to or which has claimed the life of a loved one.

That might explain a tweet from @Pakistaninews which referred to a Fox News report of a strong earthquake in Papua New Guinea. In recent days, a huge earthquake and tremors have affected south eastern Iran, Pakistan and parts of India. No doubt earthquake victims will be at the forefront of Pakistani concerns, though some no doubt will also have relatives in Boston.

Our suffering and the suffering of those we love should lead to a heightened sense of empathy for those who suffer similar tragedies, even if we otherwise share little cultural affinity. In this regard, one can't help but wonder why so many other attacks come and go without receiving a similar degree of concern and coverage.

When a group of Shia Muslims from the Hazara tribe are blown to pieces by Pakistani Taliban bombs in Quetta, the blood that flows is of the same colour as that of Australians in Bali. When a suicide bomber or an American drone aircraft rips innocent civilians to shreds, the shards of their bones are made of the same substance as the bones of the 9/11 first responders.

Terrorism affects non-Americans and non-Brits and non-Australians and non-Kiwis as well. The image of the innocent face of eight-year-old Boston victim Marty Richards will touch the hearts of all but the most heartless. Yet in Marty's name, and depending on the outcome of the investigation, we might see calls for invasions of other lands. We might see politicians, pundits, cultural warriors play the pipes of war.

Isn't this what happened after 9/11? Many were moved by the disturbing images of planes flying into skyscrapers. The resulting wave of international sympathy led to calls for invasion. Australia joined a coalition of forces to invade Afghanistan and topple the Taliban government.

It was all for the victims. The only way to avenge the death of 'our' victims was to ensure 'they' had even more victims. Ten of their eyes for one of ours.

This is hardly representative of the express wishes of terror victims and their families. Marty Richards once walked in a school peace march holding up a placard that said 'No more hurting people'.

Perhaps one of the most horrific deaths from terror was the beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl. He was murdered in February 2002 by Pakistani extremists. The UK Telegraph reports that Pearl was kidnapped in January. He was told a few hours before that he would be beheaded. He resisted attempts to sedate him.

Before he was murdered, they forced him to relate his Jewish background and express sympathy with detainees in Guantanamo Bay before putting the knife to his throat once — and then again, a second time, owing to the faulty camera.

One of those present told police: 'When they were slaughtering him in front of me I thought it was a bad dream. I had seen the cutting of a goat or chicken many times, but had never seen a human being slaughtered in front me.'

One would expect Pearl's Tel Aviv-born father to despise Pakistan and Muslims. Certainly cultural warriors speaking in his son's name would encourage such sentiment. Instead, Dr Judea Pearl has established a foundation in his son's name which (amongst other things) trains journalists in Pakistan and the Middle East.

The Foundation's website states it exists 'to address the root causes' of Pearl's death. It does this by working within the principles of Pearl's life. 'These principles include uncompromised objectivity and integrity; insightful and unconventional perspective; tolerance and respect for people of all cultures; unshaken belief in the effectiveness of education and communication; and the love of music, humor, and friendship.'

Far more effective than sending other people's sons and daughters to fight other people's wars. 

Irfan Yusuf headshotIrfan Yusuf is a Sydney based lawyer and blogger.

Topic tags: Irfan Yusuf, Boston Marathon, bombing, September 11, Iraq, Afghanistan



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Existing comments

Thank you for that well written article. I will be pondering it for some time and will bookmark it. The Principles of the Foundation you mentioned deserve to be read over and over also.

Faye Lawrenc | 18 April 2013  

This is a well written article. Terrorism thrives on fear and subjugation. I think it would be difficult to move past feelings of revenge if someone we loved dearly died due to this scourge. But I agree that sending our children to fight is not the answer.

Pam | 18 April 2013  

Most strife originates from selfishness - putting self-centered concerns above that of others. The greatest strife originates, not from personal selfishness, but from group selfishness - clan, tribal or cultural selfishness. Until we ALL subscribe to the principles of Dr Pearl's Foundation, there will be no world peace and harmony. Of course it is a two way street, and sometimes a stick as well as a carrot is needed. Two sociologists were on their way down from Jerusalem to Jerico when they came upon a man who had fallen into hands of brigands who had taken all he had, beaten him and then made off leaving him half-dead. As they passed by they said, "We must find the men who did this. They need our help."

Robert Liddy | 18 April 2013  

Thank you Irfan Yusuf there is a risk and balm in what you write. The response in the press to Boston raised similar reactions in me, though mine were less balanced. These days it is not just the terrorist act in itself,but the exploiting of the event by national propagandists. The USA acts like a well trained thespian soccer player when these tragic events affect them. Their and our press never seems to balance the gravity, and embarrassment of events like Boston with much more bloodthirsty attacks on sovereign states and their civilians. Bullies behave like this.

Michael D. Breen | 18 April 2013  

Whilst the tragedy in Boston affects all with an empathic bent, where do we see pictures of the awful toll in Iraq and Afghanistan that occur daily and have done for years.

Rosemary Keenan | 18 April 2013  

Thank you, Irfan for your timely article. You have brought up an issue that has often puzzled me. It has helped me to widen the scope of my empathy. Having lived through an earthquake some years ago, my thoughts always go back to the devastation and suffering i saw and felt.

Maryrose Dennehy | 18 April 2013  

Indeed; as I was following the tragic events in Boston, I learned that horrifying incidents were taking place in Iraq at the same time, in an attempt to sabotage the process of the first Iraqi democratic election - including the deaths of 12 candidates. Irfan Yusuf's balanced article reflects the sobering thoughts this juxtaposition caused for me. The 'local' reaction understandably included comments on tighter security needed for Margaret Thatcher's funeral, the Sydney city to surf run and future marathon races; prudent indeed, but...globally, something is missing.

Julia | 18 April 2013  

Thanks. You make a good but self-evident point: things that affect "your own" hurt more than if they affect someone else or someone else`s family. That is just how our brains work. But there was something special about the Boston outrage, epitomised for me in all those international flags flying just where the bombs went off; this was a truly international event and one of youth, fun and inherent peacefulness. This therefore was not an attack on an unfamiliar group a long way away about whom one knows little, but on all of us and especially our children.

Eugene | 18 April 2013  

Thank you Irfan for saying what I have been thinking. The same day as the Boston bombings 40 people were killed and hundreds maimed in Iraz with numerous bombings. It is very sad that we don't seem to think the killing of Iraqis or Afganis or many others is as terrible as the killing of Western people. Indeed it is easier to feel more affected when we see people similar to us killed or injured, but we are capable of having empathy for all people, if we but give it some thought.

Frances Pegrem | 18 April 2013  

A beautiful and refreshing article which I believe voices the thoughts of many Australians and indeed people all over the world. The message of tolerance and compassion needs to be broadcast.

Emily Allen | 22 April 2013  

Mr Yusuf, if the "root cause" of most terrorism today be Islamist fanaticism, would you not be honest enough to admit it? If so, what are your parameters?

HH | 22 April 2013  

On the 12th of January 1948, Gandhi undertook his last successful fast in New Delhi to persuade Hindus and Muslims in that city to work toward peace - He: Here, eat! eat! I'm going to hell, but not with your death on my soul. Gandhi: only God decides who goes to hell. He: I killed a child. Gandhi: why? He: They killed my son, my boy.The Muslims killed my son. Gandhi: I know a way out of hell. Find a child, a child who's mother and father have been killed. A boy about this high, and raise him as your own. Only be sure he is a Muslim, and raise him as one.

Game Theory | 23 April 2013  

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