Last week, a truck bomb exploded outside the German Embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Initial reports said more than 80 people were killed. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani updated that toll yesterday, saying the dead number more than 150, with 300 more wounded in the explosion.
Is that enough to make it big news? Is that enough to make us really care? Should it be?
The last two terrorist attacks in Britain have dominated American media, conversations and thoughts. In Manchester two weeks ago, 22 people were killed in a bombing outside a concert by pop singer Ariana Grande, with the choice of artist seemingly made as a way to target young girls. And last week in London, seven people were killed when terrorists using a van and knives went on a savage spree. Both tragedies took Europe and the United States by storm, dominating policy debates about safety.
Between those two attacks, there was the Kabul bombing on May 31, the deadliest attack in Afghanistan since the United States invaded in 2001. The day before, a series of bombings ripped across Baghdad, reportedly killing at least 40 people. The attacks in both Kabul and Baghdad have been reported in the United States, but neither has made the same impression as those in Britain.
Why? The cynical answer, and there is unfortunately some truth to it, is that many Americans don’t instinctively care as much about strange and foreign-feeling people, particularly those in majority-Muslim countries, as we do about more familiar, culturally similar people in majority-Christian nations. Strong empathy derives from our ability to relate to people, so the less we have in common with them, the less we care. The Brits, and to a lesser extent the other Europeans, are like family living far away to many Americans. They are not alien or strange.
And most Americans don’t have plans to visit Kabul or Baghdad, or any desire to. They’re not considering sending their kids to Afghanistan for a semester abroad or to Iraq for a quick, enlightening holiday. These attacks menace few plans. Additionally, these are nations where we recently fought wars. The fact that it’s seemingly the people we fought against killing all these civilians we tried to protect in those wars is something we know if we stop to think about it. But do we stop to think about it?
Plus, we tell ourselves, savage killings in these nations are not news. They are common, the opposite of news.
And it’s not just Americans who aren’t viscerally impacted by bombings in violent lands. People living in these nations can be cavalier, too. In 2004, I wrote about an afternoon spent cheerfully haggling and visiting with Iraqis in a Baghdad market. Children played and giggled. Adults beamed and bargained. There was no visible sign nor mention nor mood reflecting the bomb that had exploded there four hours earlier at a recruitment center for the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, killing 36 people.
We tell ourselves that we value every human life, but often it’s lip service. Hearing that 1,000 people were killed in an earthquake in an exotic land might slow us for an hour, while the death of a beloved pet shakes a family for months.
As long as savage killings in faraway lands are not newsworthy, to many residents or to us, they will likely continue. If we ever get to a point where we instinctively have just as much caring and empathy for the victims of such tragedies when they don’t look like us, live like us or pray like us as when they do, such killings would probably stop.
Because if we felt like that, what would we have to slaughter each other about?
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.