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Column: The Horror Increases the Closer You Are

Boulder, Colo.

As I write this, in my home in Boulder, the snow outside my window is gently falling. The day has been particularly quiet; the snow has kept noises subdued. It’s over 12 inches deep in some places, with more expected Tuesday night and over the next few days. I’ve already had to shovel my driveway twice. I expect I’ll be doing it many more times in the coming week.

Meanwhile, across the country, we’re still looking for answers in the aftermath of two explosions that rocked an event where people had gathered to cheer each other on. The explosions weren’t particularly powerful, but they were powerful enough.

I don’t have any more insight on this than anyone else. No one knows why this happened, or how it is that circumstances could even lead to such a thing — at least, no one knows yet.

Still, some facts did emerge as time went on; not about the lead-up to the event, but about the aftermath. Along with the terrible injuries and deaths, there was some more heartening news. People were seen rushing toward the explosions, not away; heading into danger to help. People in Boston were on Twitter offering assistance: a place to stay, a place to warm up, a place to get food and water. Others donated blood, until the Red Cross had to tweet and say they had enough (but please, wait a few days and then donate, since the current supply will run low soon).

During that mix of news my attention was drawn to a series of people on Twitter saying, “Meanwhile in Iraq, 50 killed and 300 injured in bomb attacks today,” with a link to a news story about it.

Certainly that is a bigger event in terms of sheer magnitude, and what’s been happening there has been going on for years, making the enormity of it difficult to grasp. And while it can be hard to know the exact intent of the people tweeting that, it does seem as if they were trying to put the Boston story into a global perspective, a sly if snide dig at American isolationism and narcissism.

Fair enough. But that’s not the only way to see it. To me, that also shows that ideologically driven human-made horror is, simply, everywhere. We cringe at bigger numbers, at bigger events, but perhaps, in the end, all horror is local. Something nearby will seem bigger because it literally hits home. Comparing it to ongoing, larger horror does nothing to lessen the impact.

And it doesn’t change the fact that while it probably only took a few people to cause the damage in Boston, a far, far larger number rushed in after to help.

I was thinking about all this as I watched the snow fall past my window. It occurred to me, somewhat randomly and spontaneously, that this snowstorm must be huge. It’s been snowing all day, and will continue for several more. I found a satellite view of the United States, and the system truly is enormous, 620 miles across, and still being fed by Pacific moisture. The amount of water in the air above the western states must be measured in the billions of tons, hundreds of billions.

That fact made me reel. It’s a huge number, impossible to grasp. I continued looking out my window, thinking of the comparatively small amount of snow settling onto my yard, belying the immensity of the cloud above.

Either way, that snow is here, and more is coming. All of us are still going to have to shovel ourselves out from underneath it.

Phil Plait is author of Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing ‘Hoax’ and Death from the Skies! These Are the Ways the Universe Will End.