Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

Why Do the Boston Marathon Bombings Make Me Feel Guilty?

The Boston Marathon bombings and a different type of survivor guilt.

Today marks the one-week anniversary of the start of a heartwrenchingly sad series of events here in Boston.  All of us in the city have been touched by the Marathon bombings and subsequent manhunt in various ways—some of us, unfortunately, more viscerally and irreversibly than others.

But even for those of us who weren’t downtown at the finish line (not this year, at least), there are palpable connections to the tragedy.  We compulsively checked Facebook feeds for hours last Monday, relieved at the constant stream of friends who checked in as OK.  We learned of the friends and friends-of-friends who weren’t as fortunate.  We sought out neighbors for social support, we wrestled with how to talk about everything with our kids, we sheltered-in-place.

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One week later, and it’s hardly back to business as normal here.  On my commute this morning I followed a city bus flashing “Boston Strong” on its route message board through street traffic from the first funeral for a bombing victim, all the while lost in thought regarding how I should advise and comfort those students of mine who were childhood friends of the now-in-custody perpetrator.

The emotional fallout keeps evolving too.  Each in our own way, we’ve bounced from sadness to fear to anger and back again.  And as the one-week marks hits today, I’ve found myself confronting a more surprising emotion as well: guilt.

Why would I feel guilty about the bombings?  Or, more precisely, about the nationwide response to them?  It’s complicated.  Which is a cop-out, of course, but also true.

First, please let me clarify that I’m anything but ungrateful.  The outpouring of emotional, psychological, and financial support for Boston from all quarters of the country (and, indeed, the globe) has been heartwarming and more than welcome.  For those most directly and permanently affected by the bombings, I’m sure these shows of solidarity and sympathy have been the source of at least fleeting positive energy in an otherwise unfathomably dark time.

Even as someone whose daily life has not been inexorably altered by these events, I, too, have appreciated the thoughtful emails and texts from friends checking in to make sure all is OK and the images of fans from rival sports teams paying homage to Boston.  All the same, though, I have to admit, this free-flowing love and support for Boston leaves me feeling a bit, well… guilty.

Why guilt?  Because I can’t stop wondering about the circumstances that lead our local tragedy to be so much more newsworthy (and empathy-worthy) than other tragedies.

So many Americans know the names and faces of the Marathon bombing victims.  Yet so few (myself included) know anything about the fatal explosion in West, Texas just two days later, even though the casualties of that tragedy were even greater in number.  What’s the difference?  Proximity to a major media center?  An easily identifiable cast of villains in one instance and a less black-and-white story involving potential corporate negligence and failed regulatory oversight in the other?

Four innocent people lost their lives in the Boston over the course of one week, with dozens more suffering serious, life-altering injuries.  But these numbers are certainly no greater than the average weekly gun violence casualties in this country (and they pale in comparison to the statistics that emerge from particularly bad weeks on that front).  Still, our attention is riveted by the unexpected, whereas we become inured to incremental suffering.

Yes, life in Boston was particularly anxiety-producing and flat-out scary for 24 hours last Friday.  But as these well-wishers from Syria remind us (left), it’s a luxury many Americans are able to take for granted to live where such uncertainty and chaos is so unfamiliar and unprecedented.

So I don’t mean to sound ungrateful; I really don’t.  It has been uplifting to see how so many have rallied around Boston.  By all means, please continue to send well wishes, positive thoughts, and your financial assistance to the many victims here who desperately need it.  The generosity and support has been inspiring and will make a real difference.

But save some for the other people and causes out there who need it too.  The victims whose perpetrators aren’t captured after a riveting, adrenaline-filled day that resembles a Keifer Sutherland drama.  The victims whose tragedies don't occur all of the sudden on live television, but rather take the form of a slow, steady drip of despair or violence.  The victims who don’t speak the same language as you, wear the same clothes as you, or pray to the same deity as you.

They need your love and your help too.

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Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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