The footage of the first explosion, especially that shaky image of a sudden cloud sweeping over a sidewalk full of cheering spectators, is disturbing for many reasons. The ordinariness of the scene before the first pressure-cooker bomb went off, for instance. A crowd had filled the sidewalks to cheer runners competing in the marathon, mere meters away from the finish line. Smiling faces, random chatter, shouted words of encouragement: It was a scene typical of finish lines around the world.
The annual Boston Marathon, of course, is no ordinary event. The oldest and perhaps the best known of the world’s major road races is an elite competition, open only to those runners who meet strict qualifying requirements. But part of its draw is the city itself; a special holiday is called on race day, and the city’s population, always passionate about sports, turns out en masse to watch the race and support the runners.
The series of improvised bombs (two went off, and another two were reported to have been found and dismantled) was aimed squarely at the crowd, not at the runners—in other words, at the ordinary spectator or bystander, the most vulnerable because most defenseless target of terrorism.
The explosions resulted in three people dead and some 170 injured; perhaps the death toll would have been higher if not for the fact that it is standard practice for major race organizers to position a medical station right after the finish line (the doctors on duty were able to perform triage on many victims), and that some of the world’s best hospitals are in Boston.
The three who died were a cross-section of the city’s population: Lu Lingzi was a Chinese exchange student, one of thousands of foreigners who enroll every year in the many top schools in the area. Krystle Campbell, 29, worked in a restaurant, in a city known for its bustling food scene. And, most heartbreakingly, Martin Richard was an eight-year-old boy who had rushed back to the sidelines of the race after an ice cream stop, eager to resume watching.
The death of these innocents, and the fate of the many injured (including Martin’s mother, who suffered a brain injury, and his sister, who was hurt, too), have weighed heavily on many consciences—and figured prominently in the news during an unusually news-heavy week.
A slow-burning backlash on social media has raised instructive questions about the reporting of such acts of terrorism. Why, to paraphrase the most common form, did the Boston Marathon bombings generate so much media attention, when other crises in other parts of the world on the same day had claimed a greater number of lives—and yet failed to register on the media’s radar screen?
One answer is that the world’s dominant news platforms necessarily exhibit a Western bias, and an attack on a major Western city like Boston is of primary interest to the news platforms’ readers or viewers or users. Another answer is that bombing a major marathon has never been done before, and the world’s media all include newness in the definition of the news. A third answer is that technology made sharing the first reports and video clips of the bombings extraordinarily convenient—fuelling interest in both mainstream and social media.
We should be wary, however, of any backlash that is based on the assumption that many news organizations highlighted the Boston bombings because they thought the lives of American residents are more important than, say, those of Iraq or Afghanistan. We must not be drawn into using, consciously or otherwise, a sort of calculus of suffering, where we put privileged citizens of developed countries at the top or, conversely, give first priority to citizens of underdeveloped societies.
Seeing that marathoner stagger to the ground after the first explosion, or hearing of the double amputation of a 27-year-old victim, or learning about the death of a happy eight-year-old: These are details from the lives of innocents killed by cowardly terrorists, demanding to be told.