In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings there was an eddy of controversy in the Australian media over whether it really mattered. ABC News breakfast presenter Virginia Trioli pointed out that a mere three people had been killed in Boston, while on the same day 50 Iraqis died in a series of car bombs. A tsunami of information had gushed from of Boston, while the news about Iraq was buried somewhere in the foreign pages.

“That’s the contrast [she said] that we always have on a day like today when it seems to many where we are overly focusing on what happens to rich white people in the West, versus what happens on a daily basis in those countries.”

Columnist Andrew Bolt, no friend of the ABC, was incensed: “ABC television host Virginia Trioli, a rich white person in the West, interrupts her station’s non-stop coverage of the Boston Marathon explosion to wish it were otherwise”.

However, his sarcasm did not stop another ABC journalist, Jonathan Green, from wondering “why violent death through an act of terror is so intrinsically, almost morbidly, interesting when it occurs in America – in the family, if you like – and so remotely sterile and stripped of its common humanity when it strikes with idle inevitability in the streets of Iraq”.  

Some American readers might be angered by this hostility toward their country’s tragedy, but it is a question that left-wing American journalists were asking as well. Writing in Salon, Paul Campos said that a tally of three murders was “pretty much an ordinary day” in many American cities. “For example, Thursday in Chicago, at least eight people, including three teenagers, were shot over a 12-hour period, in seven separate incidents.”

You may fume that remarks like these are insensitive and heartless, but they do raise a puzzling and important question: why should we care about what happens to strangers?

After all, the fate of people we have never met in countries we have never heard of is a staple of the evening news. An earthquake in Iran kills dozens in mountain town; a tsunami in Sumatra kills thousands in villages so remote there are no roads; warlords rape and slaughter hundreds in refugee camps in the Congo. The horrors flicker on the screen for 30 seconds as an aperitif for the sport and weather. Why should their suffering touch our lives?

This is actually composed of three questions. First, is media coverage proportionate to the importance of the event? Second, how should we measure the relative importance of human lives? And third, why are we asking this question at all?

Is the wall-to-wall coverage of the Boston bombings proportionate to their importance? That depends on how significant this atrocity is to us, the survivors.

From a purely self-interested point of view, Boston could be a template for other terrorists. Everyone in a developed Western country has a stake in this event because disaffected, radicalized young Muslim men could easily strike in Copenhagen, or Lyons, or Melbourne. All they need is an instruction manual downloaded from the internet and a pressure cooker. Similar atrocities have been planned in Australia, even though police vigilance thwarted them. Boston could be a template for other terrorists.

We have a link to Boston, too, because of the “six degrees of separation”. Now that the world is a global village, many TV viewers in other countries will have visited Boston or have friends or relatives there. Running in the Marathon were 153 Australians.

And finally, the bombing ticks every box for an editor: it is dramatic, novel, emotional and close – at least culturally, if not physically. A million tourists have visited the tavern in the long-running TV series, “Cheers”. Boston is like an old school friend.

Perhaps this justifies our interest in Boston, but it highlights our lack of interest in the deaths in Iraq. So we have to ask: do we have a moral obligation to care about people with whom we have no connection? Virginia Trioli and Jonathan Green seem to think that our “caring” should be proportionate to the number of lives which are affected.

This is precisely what philosopher Peter Singer argues in his 2009 book on philanthropy, The Life You Can Save. He contends (along with Bill and Melinda Gates) that “All lives have equal value”. Hence, in an ideal world, resources ought to be allocated to Bangladesh and the Netherlands in proportion to their populations. To give Singer credit, he gives a large proportion of his own income to projects in developing countries because he really believes that what is surplus to his own requirements should be redistributed. He urges the rest of us to do the same.

But something feels quite odd about allocating compassion by long division. No society has ever been based on the proposition that “all lives have equal value”. A mother values her child more than the child next door; we care more about our cousins than Greenlanders. I would wager that even Peter Singer loves his mother more than my mother.

The oddness has to do with what “caring” really means. When Virginia Trioli complains that we care too much about Boston, and not enough about Baghdad, what problem is she trying to solve? Whether we watch one minute of the carnage and panic in Boston or five minutes of similar scenes in Baghdad makes no difference to the residents of these cities.

Caring implies that we enter into a personal relationship with another human being, that we take upon ourselves some degree of responsibility for their welfare. It is not about ensuring equality of material resources.

We need a better reason than equality to justify why we should care. The point of caring is discovering a common bond with distant people. Today this is becoming harder and harder. We no longer admit to sharing a common narratives like religion or political ideology. To be sure, we share a common humanity. But in post-modern discourse, the common link seems to be merely our DNA or perhaps our currency. Isn’t there something more?

Which brings us to the most important question: why are we worrying about this at all?

In the ancient world, the misfortunes of other people were of no great interest. The Greeks believed that only they were fully human; everyone else was a barbarian. The Old Testament Hebrews were not interested in the calamities afflicting the Canaanites and the Philistines, let alone the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Even today villagers in remote valleys in Papua New Guinea are said to regard residents of the neighbouring valley as less than human. The natural philosophy of man is beggar thy neighbour, not bind up his wounds.

Compassion became the natural response to a stranger’s distress only with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Christian belief that each and every human being is a child of God gave compassion a metaphysical foundation. It was no longer a question of convenience or self-interest, but a response to a universal brotherhood under a divine Father.

So the very fact that Trioli and Green think that the disproportionate coverage given to the tragedy in Boston is unfair is a tribute to the residual Christianity in their outlook. The natural impulse of the Christian is to pray for “brethren” in distress, wherever they are. And this spiritual solidarity eventually gives rise to formidable networks of charity, many people working silently, anonymously, to help victims of tragedy and to restore peace to shattered nations.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.