Finding Personal Grief for Distant Suffering

Mumbai's recent tragedy hits very close to home. Just two weeks ago, 18 supporters of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), several staff and I were staying at the Oberoi Hotel and visiting AJWS-supported NGOs in the region. Just days after we left, we heard that terrorists stormed our hotel building, as well as the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Chabad House, and over three days killed 163 people and wounded nearly 300. We were overcome by grief at these unnecessary deaths and were hit by a wave of horror: It could have been us.

But it doesn't take a close encounter with disaster for this tragedy to chill us to our core. Americans project this urban terrorism onto September 11th and Oklahoma City; the Jewish community immediately recalls targeted bloodshed against Jews in Israel and in Europe. Even though it took place on the other side of the world, for many of us, this is an all-too-familiar and psychologically local story.

The intimacy of the Mumbai attack is what has kept it on the front page. We identify with the anguish of the orphaned child who saw both of his parents murdered in cold blood or with the American tourist inexplicably and randomly swept up in terrorism. Our identification with this tragedy multiplies the columns of ink devoted to the details of this horrific incident. The media recognizes our thirst for information and responds.

Yet during this same week that Indians, Americans and British tourists and an Israeli couple and their staff were taken hostage and slain in Mumbai, 350-400 civilians were killed in Jos, Nigeria and between 7 and 10,000 fled after Christian and Muslim gangs burnt homes and attacked civilians in a vicious rampage. While the Times and other media focused on Westerners murdered in Mumbai, the Nigerian slaughter merited only a few short articles on back pages and websites. Also in November, tens of thousands died in the Democratic Republic of Congo (an International Rescue Committee study earlier this year says 45,000 a month). Countless others succumbed to guns, starvation and disease elsewhere in the world, ethnic and religious hatred, the grip of hunger and the scourge of AIDS. Why don't these stories make the front page for more than a day or two?

I believe it is because of our perceived lack of intimacy with the destitute poor, the persecuted and the displaced. Stories of people living with daily murder, daily rape and constant, unmediated suffering are simply more abstract, more unfathomable than an act of violence in a five-star hotel. As media consumers, it is difficult to relate to the pain felt by someone in a scorched field in Darfur or whose family has died and community has been halved by the AIDS pandemic. When we fail to express prolonged outrage at these more distant tragedies, the media responds by relegating them to small print in the back of the paper -- if they are printed at all.

We must close the gap between tragedies we can fathom and those we cannot, because the distance we place between ourselves and unfathomable disaster in the developing world is false. We live in a global society where the burden of injustice is shared.

The Judeo-Christian ethic is built on a narrative of empathy. In the Exodus story, when the Jewish people are taken out of slavery and become a nation, they are told: "befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." This is not just an edict to help the stranger and the oppressed, but an imperative to empathize, to protest all oppression as if it were our own. Had the world and the media responded this way during World War II, millions of infinitely precious lives -- Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others targeted by Hitler -- would have been saved from the flames.

It is critical that we recognize that every act of murder is personal and worthy of our outrage. The deaths in Nigeria should be as intimately tied to us all as are the wrenching murders of fellow Westerners. When we do, en masse, finally come to this realization, our united outcry will prompt the media to respond to the horrors that unfold every day in the developing world just as fully as it did to the obscene acts of random violence in Mumbai last month.

We live in a global society, where our security -- and more importantly, our humanity -- is linked with that of people of the developing world who live with suffering, conflict, human rights abuse and disease every day. Their suffering should be felt as ours.