Boston? Yes. Arusha? No thank you
The bomb blast tore mercilessly and indiscriminately through the crowd, killing three innocent civilians and injuring scores more. Mayhem ensued, as the injured were rushed to hospital and the people struggled to understand why such a tragedy had befallen them. The gathering had been peaceful and the mood, celebratory. And this was not, after all, a place accustomed to such indiscriminate violence – the country had not experienced a bombing of this nature in more than ten years. Law enforcement agencies moved quickly and resolutely in response. Links with organized international terror groups were immediately suspected, and certain individuals of apparent Middle Eastern origin were singled out and tracked down.
No, this is not the story of the events that transpired at the 2013 Boston Marathon on 15 April 2013. This is the story of a more recent bombing – one that occurred at Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Arusha, Tanzania, on Sunday 5 May. At the inaugural mass held at the newly built church, which was being attended by the Vatican's ambassador to Tanzania and other dignitaries, a bomb was allegedly thrown by an assailant on a motorcycle into the crowd that had gathered for the occasion. No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the arrest of three Emirati, one Saudi, and four Tanzanian nationals attempting to cross the border into Kenya suggests that connections with international terrorist groups are being seriously suspected.
The Boston Marathon, which also left three people dead, and in which links with international terrorist groups were also initially suspected, sparked saturation coverage on a massive scale by the mass media, not only in the US, but throughout the world. All subsequent developments were reported in a blow-by-blow manner, and even hints of what might appear to be a new twist or turn were also immediately released online, on the airwaves and in print, often with little concern for confirmation or fact-checking. The search for answers was vigorous and unwavering. Detailed backgrounds were sought and provided on the suspects and their origins, offering in-depth analysis and speculation covering all conceivable motives. At the same time, moving accounts of the pre-bombing hopes and aspirations of the victims and their families, and their courage in facing life after the tragedy, quickly filled the news.
The bombing in Tanzania, on the other hand, was met by media outlets around the globe with little more than a collective yawn. As of 9 May, the Boston Marathon bombing had been the subject, for example, of 249 articles made available on the BBC News website, exploring every possible angle of the bombing and its aftermath. On the same website, the bombing in Tanzania has been the subject of just two articles – both of which were released on the day after the bombing. No effort has been made to provide any portrayals of the victims – their backgrounds, hopes or aspirations. And the lack of any follow-up articles reveals little interest in clarifying or pursuing the circumstances behind the bombings, or the arrest of the suspects currently in custody, including their backgrounds, motives and possible international connections. This gaping discrepancy between the attention devoted to these two bombings is not at all limited to the BBC, but is largely representative of major media corporations throughout the world.
The similarities between these cases are clear. Unexpected explosion at a prestigious and peaceful gathering of innocent civilians? Check. Three dead and scores injured? Check. A stunned and grieving community? Check. Video footage available of the attack and its aftermath? Check. The fear of further attacks in similar situations (marathons and churches)? Check. The possibility of the involvement of foreign groups known to use terror as a means to achieve certain political ends? Check.
What makes them different? At the risk of belabouring the obvious, the prime difference is clearly in the value that the media attach to events that impact on the world's economic, political and military ‘centre’ (predominantly white, Western, wealthy, powerful), and the ‘periphery’ (predominantly black, African, and impoverished). It is closely linked to the notion of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims. But to a degree it is also about the possession of military clout and the willingness to use it. Terrorist attacks directed at the US have in the past been used as the pretext for massive bombing campaigns and invasions of other countries. There may have been a degree of anticipation regarding the possible global ramifications of a US government response (military or otherwise) had links to certain foreign organizations been discovered.
The stark difference in the coverage of these two incidents certainly serves to reaffirm and bring home something that should already be abundantly clear: the major ‘global threat’ as perceived by much of the world’s media is not so-called 'terrorism' per se. Nor is it the more specific variety of cross-border ‘terrorism’ that is seen as being linked to extremist Islamic groups. It would appear that the concept of ‘threat’ is dependent not on the nature or the scale of the act itself or on the actor responsible, but primarily on who (or where) the victims are. Which passport do they carry? Where are they based? And it is clear that in the eyes of the media at least, some victims are far more worthy than others.