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US Opinion: From Boston To Syria --- Suffering Is Not Relative

Matt Sienkiewicz (Twitter) is an assistant professor of Communication and International Studies at Boston College, as well as a documentary filmmaker.

The Boston Marathon bombing and its hyper-mediated aftermath opened the floodgates for a rush of analysis and interpretation, ranging from wild conspiracy theories to heartwarming expressions of sympathy.

Many of these reactions are not worth quibbling over. They either nakedly serve political interests or give voice to people’s immediate gut reactions.

To one --- ostensibly liberal --- reaction we should not give a free pass, however: even if it does sound cosmopolitan or open-minded: the call for “perspective.”

Since so many places in the world have it so much worse, this argument goes, Bostonians ought not to act shocked, dismayed and depressed about the situation. Just look at Syria. Look at Afghanistan. Look at Iraq. What right does Boston’s comparatively well-heeled populace have to "freak out" about one isolated attack and its unfortunate but thankfully short-lived aftermath?

Isn’t Boston’s shell-shocked attitude just another sign of America’s self-absorbed myopia?

Kafranbel, Syria, sends condolences to BostonSomerville, near Boston, sends their wishes for peace to Syria

No, it isn’t. No act of terrorism, death or destruction should ever be “put in perspective.” To my mind, Bostonians not only had the right to "freak out", but the obligation to do so. Because to “put things in perspective” and realize how much worse it could have been is not an act of charity, it’s an act of ethical disengagement.

Yes, it would be very good to have more sympathy for, and more actively help, those who suffer. But a step towards this is, I believe, to realize what suffering is and how unacceptable it is to live with, even for a moment.

No one knows this better than the countless Syrians, Palestinians, Israelis, Afghans and others whose messages of sympathy flooded inboxes and timelines as Boston’s horror played out. Perhaps no emotion in the world is more universal and cross-cultural than the fear of potential loss or the pain of its actualization. It is our duty to feel this fear and express this pain, lest we forget how seriously we must take it in all possible contexts.

Perspective, then, is no kind of virtue in this instance.

The true victory of Evil comes when people come to accept it-- when it becomes a badge of honor to treat constant fear, stress and surveillance as the “New Normal.” "Keep Calm and Carry On" makes for a nice T-shirt slogan but a bad ethical precedent. This doesn’t mean people should make rash decisions or, G-d forbid, victimize others in the name of one’s own suffering. But if something is terrible, we must say it is terrible and not worry about offending those who have had it worse.

And, so, I praise those who freaked out and treated the lost lives, torn limbs and locked-down neighborhoods of Boston as the tragedies they were. Pain tells us when something is wrong and there is no purpose in pretending otherwise.

I hope Bostonians use this pain as motivation to help people here and abroad, but in any case I applaud its expression.

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