My brother and I are close. Though we're fairly different we still can communicate on the same ground. I'm a social media marketer and religious, Jonah is a writer and editor for a national magazine and may be best described as quasi-religious. But when the news of the attacks in Boston came, we both saw it as an issue of great moment.
We, like everyone else, were left with questions of meaning - What does this mean for our country, for me, for the culture, for peace, for Americans, and for violence elsewhere that goes unnoticed? The following is an edited version of the email exchange I had with my brother in the wake of Boston, in which we discussed blind nationalism, the problem of violence, and how we should respond to these types of tragedies.
Sam: Whenever things like this happen, it is sad but it always makes me critical of our culture. I think the most interesting things were the comments I saw on social media of sympathy, Amero-religiosity, and the lack of attention to violence elsewhere, like Chicago and Guantanamo. Aren't these a problem? Where is our attention and outrage for the huge problems of violence we already have?
Jonah: What makes Boston so bad is the immediacy of it. Who didn't know someone in Boston or from Boston or who was running in Boston? I knew a runner. She crossed the finish line 20 minutes before the bombs went off. And to see the images—they look like a street I could walk down.
Many Americans, and I include myself here, only care about this type of thing when it hits home, so to speak. Oklahoma City. 9/11. Now Boston. Our compassion has a limit, apparently, and it's the United States border. Sure, plenty of people are aware of the horrible violence in Syria, in the Congo, in Guantanamo, in Mexico. But you don't see that type of outpouring of sympathy and support when Syrian troops use rape as a tool of war, for example. I just wish we also felt empathy beyond our borders.
Here's an interesting perspective on what America does and needs to do by Cord Jefferson. He argues that what Americans really need is true courage, which by all accounts we don't really have.
Sam: Jefferson's article asks a lot. It asks for a sort of collective sacrifice and elevation of the communal good that, honestly, Americans seem incapable of embracing post-WWII. It's true to say that we cannot live in fear and this is how we, as a people, triumph. But are people really willing to reject their fears in favor of bravery that is collectively good but makes one personally vulnerable? I'm willing to make that kind of sacrifice. Maybe you are too. But how many can we expect to join us?
We have a sense of nationalism. No one questions that. But it's rare that the goodness of that comes out. Jefferson wants a nation of Gaius Muciuses - the Roman youth who willingly held his hand in the fire in order to prove to an enemy general that Romans care nothing for their bodies, and everything for glory (and Rome and defeating those who endanger them). What a country we would be! But our individualism is too enmeshed. We're too post-Enlightenment. We're autonomous now, and Jefferson is really asking us to reverse that. Maybe we should but it will take more than an editorial to undo at least 200 years of encouragement in that direction.
But I still want to argue that it's our stupidity, prejudice, and selfishness that makes us take note of something like Boston and ignore something like Guantanamo Bay. Injustice was done to us by someone else? How dare they! Systematic, public, government-sanctioned injustice is done by us to others? Ugh...we're tired of hearing about it. That's the mentality and it's a much more troubling one than having a fear of terrorists.
We ignore the regular gun violence in Chicago because it's like Africa: we expect bad things to take place there (and it's mostly happening to a different race). And I throw myself in this boat too. I don't watch or read the news just to stay up on every shooting and the problems of the poor nationwide, let alone in this city or my community. So I'm not really any better. I guess I'm just trying to say that we should be ashamed of the degree to which we ignore the systematic problems of violence around us. Jefferson was right - at the end of that horrific day in Boston, only a handful of people died. Gun violence in our country and what we're doing abroad, like drone strikes in Pakistan, make that death toll seem insignificant.
Jonah: Bravery. That's a term that's been kicked around a lot, lately. The kind required in this situation, I think, is not the hand-in-the-fire kind, though that has its time and place (Birmingham, 1963; Guantanamo, present-time). It's bravery to face the world as it is.
The world is a violent place. Be it domestic violence against women, the Boston bombings, drone strikes that mistakenly kill a dozen innocent people, or the United States' torture campaign over the past decade. So there's a bravery required just to wake up and live in that every day. It's not brave to tackle someone just because they're vaguely foreign. That's cowardly. I think that's what Jefferson is getting at. It's not brave to pull Arabic speakers off a plane because they speak Arabic. We have to learn to say: "You know what, there are crazy people in the world who will do crazy things—bombings, shootings, other stupid shit. But, I believe that most of us are good. And I will be one of those good people and do everything I can to make the world a good place." That's brave. That's what those people who ran toward the explosion displayed.
But that bravery can't be limited to only what's in front of our eyes. And this is what I think is the truly brave part. It has to extend beyond our experience. In 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. said: Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love. This is what Jesus was getting at with the Turn the other cheek. We have a choice. We can respond to these types of things violently. But throughout history, that's only prompted more violence. William Stafford wrote a book called "Every War Has Two Losers." You can't win a war. You can't end terrorism with violence. What you can do is try help those who need it—whether it's someone bleeding next to a detonated bomb, or a group of people across the world who need a school and a clinic, or a group of people being forcefully detained for a decade. That's what bravery is: Doing the right thing without knowing whether you'll be rewarded or injured for doing so.
Sam: I think we're exactly on the same page with how we think Americans should act and respond. Sometimes it's really curious that people don't see the common threads in what are universally recognized do-gooders in the best and literal sense of the word. MLK, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, they're all preaching the same principles and they're the people we admire most, the ones we think were "great" and got it right. But there's a strange disconnect. Our society doesn't say you should strive to be a certain type of person like MLK or Ghandi. Our society says you should be whatever type of person you want and even though we have other characteristics we collectively prize, they tend to be culturally specific.
We say that MLK was one of the greatest Americans ever and yet what American would ever admire a president who said, "we need to not chase these wrongdoers to the ends of the earth but rather forgive them and be at peace"? Preposterous! We'd look weak. And strength (read power) is really the greatest of American virtues.
Jonah: I think it goes back to empathy. "No man is an island" said John Donne. Neither is the United States. Which is evident when you look at the response from other countries after 9/11, or even after the Boston marathon. And sure, there are "Free Tibet" and "Save Darfur" stickers on Subarus and Priuses across the country. But there's rarely a collective sense of compassion for people outside of our country. Not for Syria, not for the London tube bombings in 2005, not even for people in poverty or lacking basic necessities. Why? I don't know. I'm guilty of the same thing. I care far more about buying a new pair of skis than I do about donating that same amount to Food not Bombs or Medicins Sans Frontieres. I'll often feel superior merely because I'm aware of a "situation" in another country, but I don't write letters to congressmen, I don't donate. Maybe the reason is: my life is good. I could spend time trying to understand an issue and understand what kind of sacrifice (I use the term lightly) I could make to help a situation, or I could spend it having a BBQ with my friends. I prefer the latter every time.
If there's a solution to that, it's beyond me. But I think MLK and John Lennon and William Stafford and Jesus were all onto the start of it (and I'm going to sound like a total liberal hippy here). It's love. It's love that births empathy. Because we can imagine our own children starving/dying/hurting, we can imagine others' suffering. And that's a start. The world is full of evil, hateful, and crazy people. There's no stopping that. But like Cormac McCarthy wrote, "You have to carry the fire."
Sam: Yeah, I think I really agree with your reasons. It helps explain why we have isolated empathy. (And who knows, maybe people in other countries feel the same way.) If there's any hope for us, it does lie with Love. I think we have the potential to "carry the fire" both individually and as a nation. But it takes being drawn out of ourselves and into true love. That's a very freeing process and it's why truly selfless people never seem to mind being selfless. But are we ready for that process? Do we desire it? Do I? And where can our empathy go so that we aren't ignorant of the world's problems but are directing our efforts to specific areas where we can do good?
It's really the age-old universal problem of human existence - choosing others over ourselves, ideals above wants, and truth over the ego. I'm just not certain we'll ever communally find the answer of Love as a response to violence. One month after Boston, are we any wiser?