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Steve Nelson: Grieving Without Self-Reflection

A makeshift memorial has taken shape near the Boston Marathon finish line in Boston’s Copley Square. (Associated Press - Steven Senne)

A makeshift memorial has taken shape near the Boston Marathon finish line in Boston’s Copley Square. (Associated Press - Steven Senne)

“I’m showing up. Showing my defiance against these bad guys.”

Was that a Navy Seal who said that? A guy from special-ops? Gandhi? Rosa Parks?

Nope. This comment, carried on the ABC evening news, came from a paunchy middle-aged guy sitting astride his expensive bicycle at the beginning of the Five Boroughs Bike Tour in New York City last weekend.

He was referring to the Boston bombing and its alleged perpetrators. Evidently, in his imaginary world, pedaling along the streets of New York City will teach bad guys everywhere a stern lesson. He is like millions — tens of millions — of Americans who seem caught up in a growing phenomenon of collective outpouring. I’m not sure if the outpouring is supposed to represent grief, outrage, empathy or patriotism, but his comment was fascinating.

Americans tend to go do something they really love to do as a compassionate or charitable response to tragic events. A scuba-diving friend recently reported his amusement with a “Dive for Sandy Hook” event. Nothing like the deaths of many children as a catalyst for an afternoon of scuba diving. The smoke hadn’t even cleared in Boston before the tragedy-industrial-complex was up to full speed. T-shirts, flowers, candlelight vigils — all across America, folks with no direct or indirect involvement with the victims were in the streets practicing the art of community grieving. At the recent New York Knicks-Boston Celtics basketball game, huge numbers of folks, including Knicks fans, wore “Boston We Are One” shirts. It seems that collective grief has become just one more rallying point in our national narcissism.

It is not a new phenomenon, but one that seems to be growing with each domestic tragedy. We Americans, who have been fed a constant diet of our own “exceptionalism” for many decades, seem to revel in our own catastrophes, no matter the scale. I don’t use the verb “revel” lightly. It often feels that these gatherings have an odd celebratory feel — as though participating is offering folks a chance to do something important, no matter how distant their relationship to the event. Yellow ribbons became the symbol of collective concern for the hostages held in Iran in 1979. Baby Jessica became a national celebrity after falling into a Texas well, spawning a made-for-TV movie (and a sizeable trust fund). Increasingly it seems as though a lost cat in Maine could ignite an explosion of conspicuous concern in Miami.

There have been many other examples, but the collective outpouring phenomenon erupted exponentially immediately following 9/11, with American flag decals on millions of bumpers and real flags on porches across the land. “Support the Troops” bumper and window stickers became nearly ubiquitous, now joined by other colors of the iconic shape declaring the displayers’ solidarity with an endless number of “causes.” There seems little doubt that this expression of emotion has been on the rise. It may be due, in part, to the 24-hour news cycle and the need for filler material. It also seems that the media both feed and create a nearly insatiable appetite for “human interest” stories. But I suspect there are several larger dynamics in play.

The less encouraging dynamic is the narrow, self-absorbed quality of these expressions. Death and mayhem visit other places on the planet with painful regularity, too often inflicted by American policy and military practice, but we do nothing to protest, to mourn the victims or raise money for their survivors.

We received an hourly update on the toll in Boston, but how many know that our drone strikes in Pakistan have killed an estimated 900 innocent civilians since 2004? An estimated 800 innocent men, women and children have been victims of similar drone strikes in Yemen. These two grim statistics come from the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School, which utilizes the research of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in Great Britain. Fox News and MSNBC don’t provide minute-by-minute updates of these body counts. And this is merely the tip of an iceberg of American violence associated with the war on terror. The body count of innocent civilians in Iraq, as of 2006, was estimated by The Washington Post at between 400,000 and 650,000. I’ve never seen an expression of sorrow or regret on an American street.

Even in our own country, daily carnage exceeds the Boston toll. On an average day in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gun violence strikes 270 humans, 47 of them children and teens. Of those, 87 die, eight of them children. Where is the national outpouring of grief for those children? Instead, even when the victim is a 2-year-old shot to death by her Cricket-toting 5-year-old brother, we get a stern lecture from gun owners about Second Amendment rights.

The other factor may be that these tragedies provide an odd avenue to express a need for community. In his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam argued that “civic engagement” was in precipitous decline, represented by dropping membership in civic and social organizations. Others have observed the ironic isolation that accompanies the information age, where folks engage in social networks without really socializing. I sense that the “Boston We Are One” and other rally points around tragedy are filling some of this need for authentic community.

This need for authentic community is not a bad thing. I just wish the impulse led to more self-reflection, less self-pity, more looking outward, less narcissism, more concern for people less like us rather than fetishizing the sad events that strike people most like us.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.