The Boston Marathon bombing happened just a week before I ran the London marathon. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard about the bombing. From every comment on twitter to the Runner's World magazine special Boston edition I have followed every twist and turn of the story.
When I'm not running I am a bit of a news junkie (it's my job) but the way I have been almost obsessed with this story has surprised me and taught me an important lesson.
Although the marathon bombing was terrible it is far from the worst terrorist attack in recent history. More deadly bombings occur in Afghanistan and Iraq regularly. I live in Britain which is far too familiar with terrorist atrocities with a history of terrorist attacks from the IRA to more recently the 7/7 bombings. And lastly my sister-in-law works for Amnesty International and so I am made aware of the deaths of innocent people across the world all the time.
So why the obsession with the Boston Marathon?
The answer to that question highlights the lesson the Boston Marathon has taught me.
Similarity breeds sympathy.
The Boston Marathon bombing targeted runners and I am a runner. I feel an affinity to runners. When running in the park I often greet (or at least nod at) fellow runners - I don't greet all the dog walkers I pass. I look at the Boston bombing and think how I missed out on running that actual marathon by just 3 minutes (I was 3 minutes outside the qualifying time). I see the victims and wonder if that could have been me. I read all the articles and look at all the pictures of the aftermath of the bomb and my heart bleeds.
What my interest in the Boston marathon demonstrate is that the more points of similarity one can see with other people the more sympathy one feels. I like the fact that I feel connected to a larger running community and feel sympathy for my fellow runners. But I feel uncomfortable with the possibility that I care more about victims of a terrorist attack in America just because they like to run 26.2 miles than I do with victims of terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world.
If similarity breeds sympathy does that mean difference literally begets indifference?
Do I care less for people who look different to me? Who might speak a different language from me? Will I be less charitable to immigrants than I am to someone who has lived in my street all their life?
I'm not the first person to worry about this. In 2005 Prof. Mark Levine devised an experiment where a jogger pretends to fall and needs help. He conducted the experiments in Manchester. Half the time they put the runner in a Manchester United football shirt and the other half of the time he put the runner in a Liverpool football top. The results were striking. When the runner was wearing the "local" shirt he was helped 80% of the time, while pretending to be a Liverpool supporter he was helped only 40% per cent of the time.
Now I could be depressed about this but instead there is a very large silver-lining from the grey cloud that we feel more sympathy for people who we think are more similar to ourselves.
The silver-lining is it doesn't seem to take a lot to feel a sense of similarity with someone. And once we feel that connection all the differences don't seem to matter.
The other part of Prof. Levine's experiment was to see if the runner was helped if they were wearing just a plain white "neutral" shirt. In the experiments they were helped marginally more than when he was wearing the rival Liverpool shirt. So the Manchester United shirt was all it took for bystanders to feel a connection. Just a shirt!
I feel a real connection to other people if they are fellow runners but the great thing is I then feel connected to them regardless of any other differences we might have. I have sympathy with the victims of the Boston bombings regardless of their race, nationality or any other characteristic that we sometimes categorise people by.
The challenge that the Boston bombing has set me is not to worry about my possible lack of sympathy I might feel with people who are different from me but to find the one point of similarity I share with people who are less fortunate than myself - and there is always at least one point of similarity. So I'm off for a run now and who knows I might even wave at a dog walker - we must have something in common (maybe).
(The picture today is of shoes left in tribute to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. For some reason I find this far more moving than all the flower tributes I have seen)