Friday, April 26, 2013

The Injustice Machine

I took quite a bit of flack last week for insinuating (or poorly attempting to insinuate) that tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing help to isolate us from larger, more prevalent tragedies in our world.

One of the more poignant responses I saw came from a Watertown resident - this shouldn't happen here; this shouldn't happen anywhere.

There are great tragedies daily around the world - not just terrorist bombings, but starvation, poverty, slavery, rape, murder, war, and abuse. People are routinely taken advantage of, used, misused, killed or otherwise injured. It happens on epidemic levels.

What makes something like the Boston tragedy so shocking for us is that it's unusual given the time and place. If it happened in Syria it may not have made news anywhere, let along garnered coverage around the clock for days. More poor children and minority children go missing every year, but rich white girls tend to make the news. Urban murders often go unreported when suburban deaths are sensationalized.

Why? Because there are certain places where we expect tragedies to occur. That doesn't make things any more or less tragic; it's not about comparison. No one should have to fear an explosion outside their place of business. No one should have to go to bed cold or hungry. No one should have to sell a child in order to feed the rest of the family. Children should not die from preventable diseases.

All of these things would be outrageous if they happened next door to us in the US. We wouldn't stand for slums - not rundown urban neighborhoods, but giant, stinking trash heaps housing millions of people - that are just part of life in many major cities around the world.

I'm just uncomfortable being more outraged about a tragedy in my backyard than the same tragedy across the globe. I've long ago accepted that we live in a tragic world and the only way I can address such tragedies is to live differently where I am.

I mourn those who lost lives and limbs in Boston. I also mourn two young men who felt that inflicting such hurt was necessary.

As much as we like to put up walls and separate "us" from "them" we are all the same. Political and geographic boundaries are arbitrary and deceptive. We have the world we make. Human society works like a machine. When we don't like the product of the machine, we tend to try and fix the product instead of trying to fix the machine.

I'm unwilling to accept "that's just the way the world works" or "it could be worse" as excuses simply because things work out well for most of us most of the time.

I don't want more bombs. I didn't want the ones we got. I don't want to let bombers off the hook or make excuses. I wouldn't accept "but he did it first" from a five year old; I won't accept it from adults.

At the same time, I'm troubled by our response. We seem to rid ourselves of anomalies by killing them or hiding them or ignoring them. To me, it comes off as denial. It's us trying to reassure ourselves that our world, our system works right - it's just these few defectives who can't play by the rules, they're the problem.

It doesn't mean we're the problem either. The problem is likely bigger than us, bigger than them. The problem is something in which we all participate; it's the machine.

I don't think the point is whether or not we should kill some stupid, hacked-off kid. That question gets most of the press, sure, but it's peripheral. The question is really how do we keep people from being left out and angry in the first place.

The answer, I think, is suffering. Whether perceived or real, the Boston bombers felt slighted, wronged, and refused to suffer. We regularly ignore suffering in other neighborhoods that we'd refuse to suffer in our own. 90% of the real fights I see (physical or otherwise) result from an insult that just can't be ignored.

I'm not sure how the math or the logic work, but if we'd be more willing to suffer so that others might suffer less will ultimately drive down the overall suffering in the world. I can't prove it (maybe someone smarter can), but I'm convinced that our refusal to suffer forces that suffering on someone else somewhere. With a terrorist bomb, that connection is obvious and immediate; with my careless wasting of water, it's likely more difficult to trace.

The first step, I think, is to suffer with. We spend a lot of time and effort arranging our lives to avoid suffering - our own and others. I think we need to stop. We need to consider others no better than ourselves and be willing to endure what they endure until no one has to endure it. I'm not sure there's any other way. I'm not always sure where to start or what to do next. But I am sure, more sure than ever, that it needs to be here and soon.

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