America: Heart of Lightness

As the Boston Marathon bombing shows, when 'we' are hit, it's major news. But when atrocities occur outside the Western world, they're inconsequential.

Yitzhak Laor
Yitzhak Laor
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Yitzhak Laor
Yitzhak Laor

Anyone who followed the manhunt for the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing almost certainly was distressed, as any citizen of the Western world would be, by the scene they saw unfold. Bombs, deaths, lockdowns, massive police forces. The concomitant failure to restrict weapons purchases, annoying broadcast services with interviewees who knew Dzhokhar – "but he was such a nice guy!" – and the inevitable response to their astonishment: “How could someone 'nice' commit such an atrocity?” This is how order is restored, eliminating any trace of dissonance. It is one of America's contributions to Western civilization. Everyone can watch justice meted out; it is us against the wicked.

This numbness does not start with acts of terror. The American notion of freedom is one based on extreme oppression: American prisons currently hold 2.3 million inmates, and U.S. incarceration rates are the highest in the world, with more than 700 per 100,000 citizens behind bars. The turning point came during the last three decades, and those of us who are admirers of the United States would do well to keep up to date: America spends six times more on prisons than on higher education. In no other democracy are so many citizens locked up.

Furthermore, one out of every nine black men in their 20s is either detained or imprisoned. The disparity in incarceration rates between blacks and whites (seven to one) is significantly higher than the gaps in unemployment (two to one) and infant mortality (also two to one). And it is totally opposite the disparity in distribution of wealth.

This massive concentration camp, with its veterans and their families constantly growing in size, is run on the basis of a tough narrative labeled "justice fighting evil." Anyone who watches TV, even so-called "liberal" programs, gets the immediate impression that Americans have lost all ability to understand crime, and that they are imbued with the same sense of self-righteousness as their court system. Every transgression, be it political or criminal, and wherever it may fall on the spectrum of these somewhat arbitrary designations, is perceived only through a polarized lens of total evil versus absolute justice.

Such is the framework for presenting the "war on terror." The majority of Americans are not in jail, but the mass incarceration among them creates a unified sense of blind, unfeeling cruelty. This kind of reality cannot be reconciled without the help of religion to perceive things as either absolute justice or satanic evil. This is where Hollywood steps in.

Nevertheless, neither American self-righteousness nor the Jihadi version is the main issue here. The main issue, rather, is the world that no one sees. For years, burnt body parts have been flying through the air in the non-Western world. Setting aside for a moment the atrocities in Vietnam, the American occupation of Iraq alone caused tens of thousands of casualties. Hordes of non-Western fatalities flash across TV screens – if they are noticed at all. Even the BBC stays within the reporting parameters dictated by a Western colonial mindset. When "we" are hit, it's major news. When others are harmed, it's a trivial event – even when unmanned drones kill hundreds of innocent people in Pakistan, and when great swathes of land are destroyed. Even then, we take no interest in the invisible lives shattered beyond the walls of our imagined world. The only issues of consequence are those that serve our own security.

Imagine an average, decent guy – a clerk for example – in a country such as Indonesia, or India, or Jordan, as he watches CNN at his neighborhood café and nods in sympathy. Imagine as he comments in all seriousness to his friends: “Those poor Americans. Life is so good there, and they go and detonate bombs. What a shame.” Never mind the ones gloating over America’s misfortune. Think of how many terrorists are born in that café, as they watch whole world glued to the calamity that befalls Boston, so unlike the total indifference shown to any event beyond the horizons of Western interest. Think of their reaction, as they see the difference between what is called an atrocity and what doesn’t even have a name.

Of course, there is a positive side of indifference. The vast and prospering field of live-broadcast counterterrorism is nourished by new terrorists. Nevertheless, to keep things in proportion for Israelis who loathe the “bad guys,” look at those nice students in Boston who, upon seeing a bleeding 19-year-old immigrant, cannot but yell: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! "The horror! The horror!”

Police officers search house to house for the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings in a neighborhood of Watertown, Massachusetts April 19, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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