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Maintaining empathy as Boston mourns

  • 18 April 2013

It 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