Since the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 18th where 3 lives were lost and over 100 were injured, a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas (14 lives lost, two hundred injured), a factory collapsed in Bangladesh (1,000 lives lost), and countless other fatal catastrophes have taken place that will not make the news. But which of these events remain on the American conscience?
A search for “West Texas Fundraiser” gets 11 million hits – the top hit is a joint effort from Texas local law firms that’s just now reached 11,000 dollars – and a Willie Nelson concert at the Bee Cave. “Savar Bangladesh Fundraiser” gets 500,000 hits, and has a handful of Just Giving and Eventbrite benefit pages.
This is not a perfect study that controls for search-term similarity or provides evidence that Steven Tyler brings in more money than Willie Nelson. But it’s clear that the Boston bombing continues to tug hardest on both our hearts and on our wallets. Why?
One reason is symbolism. The Boston Marathon represents achievement. Every year for several months, over 30,000 people around the world carve their schedules to run an average of 40 miles per week in preparation for this race. This doesn’t just describe the top finishers who run for money; these are people with day-jobs and families. For non-runners, 40 miles per week is hard to understand. If you go to work at 9am, imagine getting up at 6:30am and running the circumference of Central Park each day Monday-Thursday before your nine-hour workday. Take Friday off, then run from the top of Manhattan to the bottom (no stopping) on Saturday. Repeat for at least three months, adding the Brooklyn Bridge to each Saturday run for the last month. Oh, don’t spend more than 8 minutes on each mile. It’s a big, hard deal.
The Marathon also represents community. The event costs more than one million dollars (without unforeseen tragedies); eight cities and towns have to make preparations; and it attracts more than 500,000 spectators with about 80% of Bostonians in attendance. Hearing the announcers belt out names and times, seeing the fundraiser causes on t-shirts, watching runners smile through sweat and chafing at signs that read, “Your Perspiration is my Inspiration,” and sharing the culmination of incomprehensible efforts is an experience both awe-inspiring and comforting. Even if you are not running you are proud to be part of this powerful, beautiful, human race.
Another explanation for the gravity in Boston is intentionality. What happened at the marathon was not an accident. The race was attacked. So 35,000 runners, 500,000 spectators, and the United States felt attacked. Dense public events require trust to host; they are easy targets despite security efforts. This time, two people took unthinkable advantage and violated a vulnerable exemplar of human achievement.
Logically, it makes sense that the Boston bombing grinds deeper to our core than the events in West, Texas or Savar, Bangladesh. The fertilizer plant and the factory building were not spectacles of human greatness. Their destruction was caused by accidents, not attacks. It is easier to accept tragedy when caused by fate, like an unpreventable part of the universe unfolding. CEOs were likely negligent, but they didn’t want to hurt people. The willful acts of the bombers are tied to the actors, so we are angry at them, in addition to being sad for their victims. Furthermore, far fewer people witnessed the plant explosion, and the factory building fell on the other side of the globe. Their remoteness makes them easier to file away. But should this be the case? Should Boston get exponentially greater financial and emotional support, when just as many lives in Texas and far more in Bangladesh were ended or severely damaged?
Major sports events carry great power. Virtually everyone is drawn to them. They represent discipline, physical prowess, alliance, respect, and they are incredibly fun to watch. This concentration of value should not be diluted; it is a good thing. But the consequences of catastrophes are the same, regardless of their location: People get hurt and die. Our kinship with all those affected is the same. The plant workers could have been marathoners, the marathoners could have been factory workers. Instead of toning down our response to Boston, we can use it to boost our sympathy for West and for Savar. Fundraisers for Boston can share the proceeds. When Aerosmith and company play in Los Angeles on May 30th and the Boston Marathon is the headliner cause, at least make West and Savar the openers.