A razor sharp bit of analysis from Rafia Zakaria, a Pakistani columnist in Pakistan, on why the Boston Marathon bombing grips the world’s attention even as the death count is low:
As a weekly columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, I’ve become adept at writing about bombings. Pakistan suffered 652 of these last year; terrorist attacks took down everything from girls’ schools to apartment buildings and felled members of Parliament, singers, and school children—each person sentenced by coincidence to be at a given location in the moment it became a bomber’s target. […]
There may be fewer victims and less blood, but American tragedies somehow seem to occur in a more poignant version of reality, in a way that evokes a more sympathetic response. […]
[T]he American normal is one of a near-perfect security that is unimaginable in many places, especially in countries at war. The very popularity of the Boston Marathon could be considered an expression of just this. America is so secure and free from suffering that people have the luxury of indulging in deliberate suffering in the form of excruciating physical exertion; this suffering in turn produces well-earned exhilaration, a singular sense of physical achievement and mental fortitude. The act of running a marathon is supposed to be simple, individual—a victory of the will over the body, celebrated by all and untouched by the complicated questions of who in the world can choose to suffer and who only bears suffering.
In other words, the prosperous and solitary marathon runner who chooses suffering as a test of individual will contrasts with two religious nationalists who resent their tribe’s communal suffering and the thwarting of its communal will. Harboring bitter group grievances (unwanted suffering of ancestors as well as contemporary brethren), they lash out against the comfortable and indifferent Other (the marathon runner and his spectators).
And while one–the marathoner–embraces internationalism, running alongside people from around the world, and has an “immortality project” focused on body testing and personal happiness, the other two are focused on nationalism and the religious spirit. One is Emersonian, focused on creative and private struggle, the other two are Mohammedan, focused on the Old Text and territorial disputes. The free Nietzschean I will encounters the monotheist’s thou shalt.
When jihadist terrorism happens in America, it is thus not one insular and religious sect attacking another (as when Sunni attacks Shia in Iraq), but medievalists attacking urban and progressive secular culture worldwide; that is, it is an attack upon the children of the Anglo-French Enlightenment (those who are quite obviously taking over the world). It is Johann Gottfried Herder engaging in a rear-guard action against Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. It is the revenge of the counter-Enlightenment.
Ultimately, then, this is not just about Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” but a clash over religion in its deepest sense, which Paul Tillich famously defined as “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern” (chapter 1 of Christianity and the Encounter of the World’s Religions, Columbia University Press, 1963).
It is the clash of ultimate concerns that we are witnessing today. This is due to the Internet, international travel and communication, increased education, and global trade. We cannot escape one another. Innocence and distance has turned into experience and proximity. The persistent, indeed relentless, in-your-face encounters between people who have very different ways of making meaning along their forced march to death (whether through some version of religion, secular utopianism, or private distraction) is ever on the ready to break out into rage and violence.
And sometimes it does.
We are in a bad existential situation as human beings, It’s a psychological pressure cooker. With each passing moment we get closer to death. Some snap in the heat of this fact. They become fundamentalists, hyper-nationalists, racists, conspiratorialists . . . enthusiasts and fanatics. It relieves the pressure. Small pleasures on one’s way to becoming a meal for maggots and flies, such as taking up marathon running, are not for them. They need to make a bigger splash in the infinite cosmic pool before it swallows them whole. Some become sympathetic to the international jihad on behalf of Allah and find themselves in Boston (of all places). In an ironic twist on a hippie slogan, it comes into their minds to think globally and act locally.