On Humanity and Empathy: Boston and Rehtaeh Parsons

April 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Monday’s terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon was a little too close to home for my tastes.  A few of my students were there, near the finish line.  A couple had left by the time the bombs went off, a couple had not.  They were unhurt, as they were far enough away from the bombs.  I know Boylston Street well.  A few days before the Marathon, I was there; I had dinner in the Irish pub in the Lenox Hotel, which is across the street from where the second bomb went off.  In my mind’s eye, I can see exactly where those two bombs were.

Like most Canadians and Americans, for me terrorism happens in the abstract.  It’s a news report on TV, it’s on our Twitter timelines, it’s pictures in a newspaper.  Sometimes, it’s a movie.  But we don’t experience it personally, and this is still true even after 9/11.  I have not experienced terrorism personally, and yet, I have never been as close to a terrorism attack as I was on Monday.  Not surprisingly, I feel unsettled.

But I have been shocked and dismayed by some of the responses to the bombs on Boylston Street.  Aside from those on Twitter declaring this to be a “false flag” attack (in other words, a deliberate attack by the US government on its people), which is stupid to start with, there have also been those who have been declaring that this happens all the time in Kabul or Baghdad or Aleppo.  That is very true, it does happen everyday in those places.  Indeed, for far too many people around the world, terrorism is a daily fact of life.  That is wrong.  No one should live in terror.  But by simply declaring that this happens all the time elsewhere, you are also saying that what happened in Boston doesn’t matter.  And that is a response that lacks basic humanity.

This has been a week where I’ve been reminded too often about our lack of humanity.  The inhumanity of the bombers, of the conspiracy theorists, and those who say this doesn’t matter because it happens all the time elsewhere.

News also broke this week about disgusting, inhumane behaviour surrounding the Rehtaeh Parsons case in Halifax.  There, “friends, family, and supporters” (to quote the CBC) have taken to putting up posters in the neighbourhood around Parsons’ mother’s house supporting the boys who sexually assaulted her, declaring that the truth will come out.  I’m sure those boys are living in a world of guilt and shame right now, as they should.  But to continue to terrorise a woman whose daughter was sexually assaulted, and then teased, mocked, and bullied for two years until she took her life is inhumane.  It is inhumane that those boys assaulted Rehteah in the first place. It is inhumane that her classmates harassed, mocked, and bullied her for two years for being a victim.

There has been plenty of positive, especially in response to the Boston bombings.  As I write this, President Obama is at a memorial service in Boston for the victims of the bombing.  There are plenty of stories of the humanity of the response of the runners of the marathon, the bystanders, and the first responders. #BostonStrong is a trending hashtag on Twitter. Jermichael Finley of the Green Bay Packers will be donating $500 for every dropped pass and touchdown to a Boston charity, and New England Patriots receiver will donate  $100 for every reception and $200 for every dropped pass this season.  Last night’s ceremony at the TD Garden before the Bruins game was intense.  And so on and so forth.  This is all very heartening.  It shows that we are humane, that we can treat each other with empathy and sympathy and dignity.

But it doesn’t erase those who lack humanity.  I had a Twitter discussion last night about this.  About how this kind of inhumanity seems to be everywhere.  This morning, I was talking to two students about this inhumanity and how it just makes us depressed and wanting to cry.  I wish I could say that this is a new phenomenon in society.  But it’s not.  This is one of the (dis)advantages to being an historian.  We have the long view of history, quite obviously.  We have always been a vengeful, inhumane lot.  We’ve used torture since we could walk on our hind legs.  The Romans’ favourite past-time was gladiator fighting, where two men fought to the death.  Public executions were big deals, social outings.  All to watch a man (and occasionally a woman) die.  What is different now is the Internet allows people to express their inhumanity so much easier and so much quicker, and to gain further exposure in so doing.  And that is just unfortunate.

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