One of the ways terrorism works—yes—is by provoking a reflexive reaction whereby the targets, out of terror or anger, compromise their values. The availability heuristic leads them to worry that more violence is imminent and that they face a choice between principle and safety. From my untutored perspective, the chief reason terrorism fails is that these reactions—especially revenge—don't tend to help alleviate the conditions that brought its perpetrators to anger and then violence against its targets. However, this doesn't diminish the schadenfreude felt by terrorists as victims harm themselves.

So as we respond we must not simply trust to our better natures but, with heightened self-awareness, choose to express caring, concern and love, while using our reason to temper harmful emotion—fear, anger, suspicion and hate. After the December shooting in Newtown, I was encouraged by public figures, political leaders and those appearing in my Facebook news feed who brushed aside objections that it was too soon to discuss gun control, and instead calmly. persistently proceeded on the premise that in fact there was no better opportunity for a hard look at gun culture in the U.S. This has led to a more thorough discussion of whether "the security of a free State" is guaranteed by unregulated access to assault weapons, or compromised by the high and unceasing toll of gun violence.

In that discussion, observers were at pains to combat the availability heuristic by providing information on that latter point. Here I try to convince you to now do the same for yourself. The New York Times quotes a Dr. Alasdair Conn of Massachusetts General Hospital:

“This is like a bomb explosion we hear about in Baghdad or Israel or other tragic points in the world,” Dr. Conn said, adding that he had never seen such carnage in Boston.

In the tense minutes spent waiting for news of my mother, who was less than a kilometre from the finish line when the explosions occurred, I had this same thought. But then I wondered, "how much is this like bombings at tragic points in the world?" I realized I didn't know. The way I informed myself was to open Google News and search for "iraq bomb", "afghanistan bomb", "israel bomb", "pakistan bomb", etc. Seeing the results, I realized how the Copley Square bombing was not like those we "hear about":

  • We actually heard about it. News spread quickly around the world on social media, and even those with no personal connection expressed their support.
  • Victims had access to extremely well-trained medical care from those like Dr. Conn at MGH.
  • The death toll was much lower.

I make this last observation not to minimize the tragedy of what happened, but to give context we cannot ignore as we react. One story notes that car bombs in Iraq on Sunday "kill[ed] at least 55[, making it] the deadliest day in nearly a month." To belabour the obvious, that indicates that less than a month ago, 56 or more people died violently in Iraq in a single day. Not so in the U.S. or Canada, although perhaps to a lesser extent in parts of Mexico which we also hear too little about.

The 55 dead Iraqis are part of another continuing tragedy occasioned by military adventurism that began after another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. We should both feel gratitude for our relative safety, and ask ourselves in what part it derives from a War on Terror; from particular technologies of government surveillance; from watchful, ethical and well-trained, or militarized, police; from the coherence and mutual support of communities, and so on. We should ask whether racial and religious accusations serve our safety or undermine that mutual support, and consider how much safer we have become through having others die.

If you believe, as do many of the people I admire, in the value of human life and the equality of people regardless of where they happen to be born (or who they are born as), these are not easy questions.

Last night in Beijing I also finished a long research paper that's eaten all my waking hours over the past week, so soon I can return to the promised, regular blogging about life in China. Thanks for reading.


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