On April 15, 29 year-old Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, 23 and Martin Richard, 8, left home to watch runners cross the finish line in the Boston Marathon. They and their families thought they would return that day as always. But they never did. As the world now knows, Krystle, Lu and Martin were killed and 170 other people were shattered by bombs that day.
Also in Massachusetts, Giuseppe Cracchiola and David Frank, Sr. went to work on January 28, as did Jose Roldan the following day. They and their families thought they would come home that night as always. But they never did. Giuseppe, David, Jose and 60 other people in Massachusetts were killed and over 80,000 people were injured on the job in 2011, the last full year for which official statistics are available. Nationally, the numbers hard to believe: 18 deaths and over 11,000 injuries on the job every work day.
Startling, heartbreaking deaths every one. And yet, people of good will might consider these comparisons.
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How many days of round-the-clock broadcast news, how many satellite TV trucks, how many column-miles of print, how many gigabytes of data chronicled the first set of tragedies and how miserably few were generated to cover the tragedies that wrecked the greater number of lives?
How quickly did government officials lower flags to half staff in each case?
How many pledges to “go to the ends of the earth” were made to apprehend those responsible?
Are families any less terrorized when a loved one in good health says goodbye one morning and hours later they are eviscerated, blinded, burned and missing limbs?
Are corporate boards that repeatedly ignore safety warnings, or lobbyists and politicians who collude to slash workplace inspections knowing full well the result, more honorable than terrorists who plant explosives?
Why will the “heroes” who aided the victims of one tragedy be praised and celebrated while the “whistleblowers” who tried to avert the other tragedies be more likely to lose their jobs?
Does it matter that a president can use the innocent victims of the first case to enact more surveillance and propose more billions for weaponry to keep us “safe,” but dare not invoke the innocent victims in the second case lest the ruling class accuse him of “class warfare?”
And what about this clever Catch-22 so effective in self-censorship: the innocent victims in Boston are appropriately portrayed in sympathetic, human terms that honor their lives. But efforts to tap into this all-too-rare moment of national empathy to better understand much larger, unspoken tragedies is condemned as taking cruel advantage. In 2014 or even 2023, when anniversaries of this year’s Boston Marathon connect us again to human suffering, the guardians of the status quo will still say it’s “too soon” and “too insensitive” to try and extend compassion’s reach to victims of preventable tragedies like war and workplace deaths.
These rare moments of sincere national empathy are so terribly important to our collective humanity, indeed, to our collective survival. When else are we able to truly feel the other person’s deepest emotions? Unless a loved one of ours is maimed at work, news of a workplace accident happening elsewhere just becomes another forgotten factoid. Unless we have a family member killed or wounded in war, how likely is it we will open our hearts to the pain and grief of a million Iraqi families suffering the same fate?
A more developed sense of national empathy would better each of our lives. How many states now require health insurance to cover mental illness because a key legislator’s daughter suffers from mental illness? How many people discover they can now embrace rights for homosexuals after they realize a loved one they’ve embraced for years is gay?
We all recognize the truth about walking a mile in someone’s shoes. But it requires practice. The key isn’t in putting the shoes on; it’s the many steps in the mile.
So yes, it is right and proper to mourn with the rest of the world for those so tragically and wrongfully killed and wounded in Boston and mourn for the families who will bear the pain for years to come. But it is just as right and proper at this rare moment of national empathy to try and expand our national capacity for compassion. We can never have too much of it.