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Rafia Zakaria: The Tragedies of Other Places

April 17, 2013

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, a columnist for Pakistan’s largest English newspaper reflects on why violent attacks leave a more lasting impression if they happen on American soil.

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Image from Flickr via hahatango

By Rafia Zakaria

As a weekly columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, I’ve become adept at writing about bombings. Pakistan suffered 652 of these last year; terrorist attacks took down everything from girls’ schools to apartment buildings and felled members of Parliament, singers, and school children—each person sentenced by coincidence to be at a given location in the moment it became a bomber’s target. Through my columns, I have offered up fumbled expressions of grief and comfort to Pakistani readers whose stores of empathy are bled daily without any promise of replenishment. I believe that these rituals of caring, made so repetitious in Pakistan by the sheer frequency of terror attacks, are crucial; in preventing the normalization of violence and senseless evil, they keep a society human.

The bombings in Boston on April 15, 2013 pose their own conundrum to those like me who are in the habit of writing about bloodier conflicts with more frequent conflagrations. There is an inherent cruelty in every terror attack—an undeniable reverberation of evil in the destruction of an ordinary moment and the forced marriage of that moment to sudden violence. Boston is no different, no more or less tragic than the bombings that have razed the marketplaces of Karachi, the school in Khost, the mosque in Karbala.

American tragedies somehow seem to occur in a more poignant version of reality… within minutes American victims are lifted from the nameless to the remembered.

And yet it seems so. Attacks in America are far more indelible in the world’s memory than attacks in any other country. There may be fewer victims and less blood, but American tragedies somehow seem to occur in a more poignant version of reality, in a way that evokes a more sympathetic response. Within minutes American victims are lifted from the nameless to the remembered; their individual tragedies and the ugly unfairness of their ends are presented in a way that cannot but cause the watching world to cry, to consider them intimates, and to stand in their bloody shoes. Death is always unexpected in America and death by a terrorist attack more so than in any other place.

It is this greater poignancy of attacks in America that begs the question of whether the world’s allocations of sympathy are determined not by the magnitude of a tragedy—the numbers dead and injured—but by the contrast between a society’s normal and the cruel aftermath of a terrorist event. It is in America that the difference between the two is the greatest; the American normal is one of a near-perfect security that is unimaginable in many places, especially in countries at war. The very popularity of the Boston Marathon could be considered an expression of just this. America is so secure and free from suffering that people have the luxury of indulging in deliberate suffering in the form of excruciating physical exertion; this suffering in turn produces well-earned exhilaration, a singular sense of physical achievement and mental fortitude. The act of running a marathon is supposed to be simple, individual—a victory of the will over the body, celebrated by all and untouched by the complicated questions of who in the world can choose to suffer and who only bears suffering.

The innocence of marathon runners and their expectations of a finish line, a well-earned victory, are markers of an America that still believes in an uncomplicated morality even while it is at war.

When terror hits the site of such faith in human fortitude, the impact is large. The innocence of marathon runners and their expectations of a finish line, a well-earned victory, are markers of an America that still believes in an uncomplicated morality even while it is at war. The runner runs, sweats, suffers, and deserves the prize; the messiness of the world has no place in that vacuum of earned achievement where victory is straightforward in a way that it can never be in actual life. The rest of the world is a more complicated place; its people are forced to digest more complicated truths whose vast gray areas rob every tragedy of the pathos available to Americans living and mourning in a universe of black and white.

Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN, Pakistan’s largest English newspaper. She is a writer and PhD candidate in political philosophy. Her work and views have been featured in the New York Times, Dissent, The Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, The Hindu, and National Public Radio. She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An intimate history of Pakistan, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

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35 comments for Rafia Zakaria: The Tragedies of Other Places

  1. Comment by venze on April 17, 2013 at 9:24 pm

    The reason is obvious. Life remains cheap in most poor and developing countries. You can have hundreds of bombings in Iraq or Pakistan, killing people by the hundreds if not thousands, yet sadly they are just statistics.
    In rich nations, life is precious. A few deaths can cause huge uproars in the media. No need to compare. (vzc1943, btt1943)

  2. Comment by Patrick T on April 18, 2013 at 3:01 am

    I sense a bit of sour grapes that America, despite years of anti-american propaganda I have never seen in 36 years of life that the US and its citizens are still treated by the rest of the world as exceptional, even in our tragedies.

    The reason we’re special is also because unlike any other nation on Earth we actually have the power to wipe most nations off the Earth when we get angry.

    Nothing angers Americans more than a terrorist attack on our soil.

    The world should shiver in its boots when this stuff happens in America because we make entire civilizations suffer for even supporting a terror cell that attacked American soil.

    Bull in a China shop? perhaps.. but why are worrying about protecting an enemy owned chinashop?

  3. Comment by Kenneth S on April 18, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    Hey Venze, ‘In rich nations, life is precious’. Lol. Question: Why haven’t your gun laws changed yet?

  4. Comment by Shaun Cunningham on April 18, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    Thanks, Rafia, for saying in such a balanced and eloquent way what some of us have been trying to say with less success since the day of the bombing.

  5. Comment by Juliet on April 19, 2013 at 2:48 am

    I believe it is immoral that anyone grieve or be incensed more over the death of an American than they do over the death of a Pakistani or anyone from any country or race.

    As John Donne so beautifully put it:
    “No man is an island,
    Entire of itself.
    Each is a piece of the continent,
    A part of the main.
    If a clod be washed away by the sea,
    Europe is the less.
    As well as if a promontory were.
    As well as if a manor of thine own
    Or of thine friend’s were.
    Each man’s death diminishes me,
    For I am involved in mankind.
    Therefore, send not to know
    For whom the bell tolls,
    It tolls for thee.”

  6. Comment by Mike Bird on April 19, 2013 at 4:20 am

    It is sad but true that if your country averages two bombings a day it is seen as just being a part of everyday life, which is, in truth, exactly what it is. In 12 years in Pakistan a child could go to school 2500 times but would know of 8000 bombings. In America in 12 years, how many bombs? Quite positively they are not a part of daily life so they are really notable events.

  7. Comment by sulhan on April 19, 2013 at 4:40 am

    People of U.S. seem to think that they are not in war, even if one of their son, their brother, or their neighbour; are in army and deployed to “war” area, and this area obviously not in one of the U.S. soil.

    Even if their own news report their country attack on an other country, this was justified under the name of terrorism. They forgot that, under the war of eliminating terrorism, they also killing civilian. Sooner or later, those civilian will get angry and do what ever they do to get payback, including joining a group of terrorism or freedom fighter. And what would happen when those freedom fighter attack? They don’t differentiated anymore, between soldier and civilian, because their moral code has become, “you kill my family, I kill yours”.

  8. Comment by Lyam on April 19, 2013 at 4:55 am

    “The reason we’re special is also because unlike any other nation on Earth we actually have the power to wipe most nations off the Earth when we get angry”

    sounds a little like North Korean talk on a bad day…

    do you actually still believe that? wiping nations off the earth is one thing… but it’s definitely not wining a war…

    How about this side-explanation: In a nation that spends over 600 billion in defence, be it through the war machine, homeland security, whatever, a successful terrorist attack is quit the achievement from the terrorist point of view (terrorist / freedom-fighter, potatoe potatoe). This story sells. The global narrative at play, top level, underdog meets self-righteous. The civilized drones have yet another subject to talk about after work ;)

  9. Comment by Robin Collins on April 19, 2013 at 9:01 am

    Beautifully written.

  10. Comment by RC on April 19, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    @Rafia interesting insight and your main theme is valid. Yet, as an ex-pat living in the USA I have found greater subtlety in many American’s understanding of their position in the global politik and the “black and white” world view isn’t as prevalent as one might think. But I live in NorCal and I’m told it’s not the “real America” (whatever that actually means).

    @Patrick T, I presume you’re talking about nuclear weapons? China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom have them; ditto for India, Pakistan, North Korea; Israel probably does; via NATO, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Turkey share them; and Iran may be close? The difference is that none of these nations have used them in war and doing so doesn’t make the U.S. “special”. What makes America one of the most amazing nations on Earth, imho, is its creativity, generosity, wonderful humor and that it welcomes people from all corners of the globe, not that it can potentially blow countries up.

  11. Comment by Caleb on April 19, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    It is different. America is a collection of people who stand together and agree that should not be senseless violence. Pakistani people are unable to do that. Despite there being small groups of peaceful people, collectively, there is no real peace in Pakistan. If one day, those terrorists and victims all stand together and say, we love Pakistan, and we do not want to have such horrific deaths, then, I will agree that when a bombing does occur, it can be considered tragic. Unfortunately, by choice, Pakistan collectively chose not to have peace.

    I feel bad for those who want peace but are simply surrounded by too many that do not care. In such a situation, those that can flee should flee. My heart goes out to those who cannot. It is not their fault, but that is what they are served by life.

  12. Comment by Ed Wood Jr on April 19, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Simple.. it’s not white people. Like it or not, that’s the truth. Same when any missing person other than white is not reported on… hundreds of kids and adults go missing, but not white thus not reported on. It really is that simple folks.

  13. Comment by Matt on April 19, 2013 at 11:16 pm

    A well written article with a rotten moral core. The idea that American policy has injected moral ambiguity to the Boston attacks is basically an excuse and justification for every terror attack that has ever occurred anywhere.

  14. Comment by Simon on April 19, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    @venze

    “No need to compare” – what a silly thing to say. Life is life.

  15. Comment by artob on April 20, 2013 at 6:42 am

    Carefully worded piece on a delicate subject.
    Normal as relative to what people have become inured to over time.
    The problem of course is that a society that can spare the time and
    energy for its citizens training to the level required to run a marathon, is a
    society that values competitive individuality on a clearly defined course.
    This is a luxury, comparatively, to those societies where that course would
    never be respected because there is much more to be concerned with
    an abstraction like running 43 kms within a certain amount of time with nothing to show for it but a sense of personal achievement.
    I guess there are three questions:
    how can we not perceive the suffering behind the bombings – not of the individuals themselves but in the phenomenon;
    are all humans not equal;
    do the American people understand that their own government is putting their lives at risk by producing terrorism, or do they think the profits are worth the risk?

  16. Comment by YanDell on April 20, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    America incarcerates 10 million people – more than any other nation – and most are African American. I think it is worth adding that there are many Americas. One America ran run in the Boston marathon, feel like an exception, ignore war. Other Americas can’t. That said, I enjoy your perspective and feel your dilemma.

  17. Comment by rabia on April 20, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    thank you, this is exactly what i was feeling but dont have the words to express it as beautifully as you did.

  18. Comment by Rabbitman on April 20, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    “Death is always unexpected in America”

    Er, only by the standards of the third world. Out of the 20 richest nations, the US ranks last in infant mortality, life expectancy and homicide.

  19. Comment by Ksenia on April 20, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    I think the reason terrorist attacks in US affect the world so much is because America is the place citizens of the world go to get away from the horror and economical hardships in their own countries. Americans are all immigrants or children of immigrants. (except of course for our native populations). I am an immigrant, and I value everything this country has given me and my family. We all came here in search of something greater and security. When that gets attacked, what else is left? I am an immigrant, but I am also a Bostonian. This city welcomed me. It raised me. It educated me. But immigrants also built this city. We are as much a representation of America as we are a representation of the world.

  20. Comment by Melanie on April 20, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    Valid and very poignant comments. But even in the US, not all lives are equal. The US (and the world’s media) have a very clear sense of priorities about the value of different human lives. The information below barely makes a ripple.

    http://www.chicagoreporter.com/news/2012/01/more-young-people-are-killed-chicago-any-other-american-city

  21. Comment by Samuel Freeman on April 20, 2013 at 8:07 pm

    The clarity of Ms Zakaria’s thought is superb. She, of course, is completely correct in what she says. It astounds, saddens and angers me most Americans are totally oblivious to the commonality of terrorist violence throughout the world–much if it being perpetrated by the United States itself as the U.S. uses weapons of indiscriminate destruction on cities, towns and villages. The list of nations in which the U.S. has engaged in terrorist attacks is too long to name them all, going back to the brutal war in the subjugation of the Filipino people, fire bombing Dresden, fire bombing Tokyo and the atomic bombs on the non-military targets of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the slaughter of Korean refugees in the Korean war, Viet Nam, U.S. instigated slaughters throughout Central America–Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras–Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Perhaps the worst of all, certainly the most prolonged and systematic, is the genocide of Native Americans.

    The irony, which Ms Zakaria clearly recognizes but is too kind to point out is, while being one of the most secure and safest nations on earth, the U.S. has been one of the largest purveyors of terrorism in the world. As a people, we should be doubly ashamed; first, for our astounding ignorance of our own history; and second, for placing such a low value on the lives of all other humans. If one American is killed in a terrorist attack, it is a tragedy prompting national morning and expectations of sympathy from the rest of the world. If 6 million Southeast Asian die, or 2 million Iraqis, well, in the words of then Secretary of State Madeline Albright when asked about the deaths of 500,000 children in Iraq due to the sanctions and continuous bombings of Iraq by President Clinton, “we believe it is worth it.”

    No, Ms Albright, it is not worth it; it is not worth the live of one 8 year old child, whether that child is Viet Namese, Filipino, Native American, Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani OR American.

  22. Comment by s.y. on April 20, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    well put. thanks for putting into words what i have been thinking all week.

  23. Comment by kirk nevin on April 20, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    Until we can muster the guts to end our support of apartheid Israel, the Muslim world will see us as the enemy. They will figure out ways to blow the legs off our runners, or knock down tall buildings in our cities. Not rocket science.

  24. Comment by Jai on April 20, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    Being in a war does not mean that one should expect attacks on civilians.

    If one reads the epics of indian sub-continent, the ramayana and mahabharat – even in those days, there was a code of conduct in war – war was to be fought by armies in open fields and start with sunrise and end with sunset. The civilian area was never touched –

    Today, there is no morality left. The US drones repeatedly hit civilian areas, the jihadis are unable to fight the army, so they attack civilians who generally have nothing to do with wars – this mentality has to go and there has to be better code of conduct.

    As far as America getting more attention with attacks – the reason is simple – it is the richest part of the earth today and everyone around the world follows US closely.

  25. Comment by Dr.KGM BIYABANI on April 21, 2013 at 1:13 am

    The author has well written. “LIFE IS PRECIOUS”…and is not gender/nationality/religion/ethnic/political/occupation based. This PRECIOUSNESS AND ITS VALUE DOESN’T CHANGE with either of the above.
    Regarding Mr. Patrick T.’s statement:
    ” The reason we’re special is also because unlike any other nation on Earth we actually have the power to wipe most nations off the Earth when we get angry.”…..you have already done that..still pursuing, like AN UNPROVOKED HULK, desire being Power, Wealth(OIL)….But there’s a pinnacle to everything except for knowledge and wisdom and charity and help….One day the Bowl fills.
    Mr. Patrick. LIFE IS PRECIOUS.

  26. Comment by travellinglight on April 21, 2013 at 2:49 am

    Somehow this kind of analysis, while trying to bring in nuance always lands up being utterly simplistic. There’s this thing, it’s called the mainstream media monopoly, what appears or doesn’t appear in our daily consciousness is often determined by the media moguls – manufactured sympathy, or something of the sort. The U.S. media doesn’t even show the coffins of its own soldiers, whose lives are lost in senseless invasions (not ‘wars’). The so-called normalcy that Zakaria refers to is more of a brainwashed silence for most, where America is seen to be the ‘coolest’ country in the world, even though so many of its own citizens are living in desperate poverty and the level of violence both internal and external is increasing every single day. We need to start being more alert to the machinations of the corporate media across the world, which is fooling us into submission.

  27. Comment by Maddie on April 21, 2013 at 10:51 am

    “It is different. America is a collection of people who stand together and agree that should not be senseless violence.”

    Senseless violence in their America, of course. Senseless violence that murders innocents all over the world for example via American drones is okay.

    I don’t want to make this ‘us against them’, but oversimplistic foolish statements like this make my blood boil.

    “Unfortunately, by choice, Pakistan collectively chose not to have peace.”
    Really? You say this based on what facts, exactly? How many Pakistanis have you spoken to and gathered information from, that you were able to make such a conclusive statement about the Pakistani state of mind.

    A human life is worth just as much in the US and in Pakistan. That is the point of this article, and that is what we need to remember.

    As human beings we need to work to prevent senseless violence everywhere, regardless of our political/patriotic/religious affiliations.

  28. Comment by Sandeep on April 21, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Give peace a chance destroy WAHABI, DEOBANDI, SALAFI terrorists.

  29. Comment by Beth Mann on April 22, 2013 at 5:39 am

    This kind of thinking is blindingly overly simplistic and always has a sort of “How’s it feel America?” tone to it, as if we’ve been sitting here in mansions sipping mint juleps and never felt the brunt of violence. Bottom line: we’re talking about *civilians* who were hurt. If our government was running the race and this happened, then I understand this type of mindset. And this whole “you’re lucky you can even run a marathon.” Egad. So we’re penalized because we’re not like many parts of the world that can’t? What about the fact that people from all over the world run in it? Its also very dangerous to make sweeping comparisons between countries with vastly divergent views, political systems, etc. Global apples and oranges. I can only imagine how hurtful it feels for people affected by this tragedy must feel reading this type of article. Oh, that’s right: they’re special white entitled victims who shouldn’t feel that way because other people have been going through it for decades.

  30. Comment by sukanta on April 22, 2013 at 8:35 am

    Well dude, Don’t you think that a tragedy is a news if (and only if) it serves the Cosmopolitan capital, somehow? 9/11 is a news for that helps the war mongering in Afghan land. But drone killing of kids in the same place is not for that goes against the war criminals. Did anybody ever thought of a war crime tribunal after the Hiroshima Nagasaki nukes?

  31. Comment by DJ Pnut on April 22, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    If the US starts looking like Pakistan (in terms of regularity of bombings/attacks) then the world knows hope is lost for good. Every attack is one step closer. Until then, there is some idea that a peaceful tomorrow is possible.

    Melt the guns!

  32. Comment by TonyMontana on April 22, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    While I do understand Rafia’s point, as an American I can only hope that we all strive for a world where these incidents are so rare that we all can adapt the American perspective of incredulity and sorrow these acts deserve. Furthermore, I believe it is human nature for any of us to empathize more with a local tragedy in our owns town or region than one in a faraway land.

  33. Comment by Alizeh on April 23, 2013 at 7:40 am

    I really loved this piece. All human lives are important and we’ve forgotten that.
    I’d also like to point out though that many people in places like Pakistan (I live there) have become dissentisized to deaths. Those who are sheltered from it, most of them don’t care. We may think about it and express our sadness, but this can only stop if Muslims stand up and condemn the violence that is happening in our countries. I do blame the US for drone attacks and all those innocent deaths at their hands. But us Muslims forget that we are also responsible for a lot of violence in our own countries. We need to drop the whole ‘We are Victims’ mentality. All the Muslims who sit their on their butts blaming USA for everything need to realise that the fault lies within us as well.

  34. Comment by Jim Craft on May 7, 2013 at 1:00 am

    I certainly understand why Americans have been so horrified by the terrorist attacks in Oklahoma City, New York City (9/11), and Boston: We have been so isolated from most of the violence that occurs throughout the world that it shocks our complacency. The writer has captured this eloquently as she talks about daily violence in Pakistan.

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about all of the American-sponsored violence committed during my lifetime–and that covers the period from World War II. In my opinion, we have a really hard time justifying all of the violence we have caused in various wars since WWII (declared or otherwise). We have killed people in other countries, usually in the name of our political philosophy (anti-communism being a big one until recently; now it’s anti-terrorism). We certainly care about members of our military who are killed or injured, but we seem never to care about the casualties on the other side (military and civilian). The numbers of people killed in places like Nicaragua, Grenada, Chile, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, …, greatly outnumber the American toll. But we seem not to care. What does that say about us?!

    Perhaps violence committed on our soil will shock us into realizing that all violence is bad, even violence perpetrated by Americans in other countries. We have no right to complain about bombs in Boston when we created a civil war in Iraq that still kills thousands of people every year. We ran out of patience with “nation-building” in Iraq, but the killing continues. Shame on us!

  35. Comment by Some Dude on January 21, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    I agree with the sentiment expressed by Rafia. US tragedies trump 3rd world tragedies and even European tragedies. Who still remembers the train and bus bombings any more? But what destroys her case is the country that she compares the US to: Pakistan.

    Pakistan is the epicenter of terrorism. So people around the world treat terrorist action IN Pakistan as a good thing. Most people feel that the blow back is well deserved, much needed and possibly insufficient punishment for the state support at worst and tolerance at best of jehadis, freedom fighters and murderers.

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