At 2.49pm on April 15th, two hours after the first runners crossed the finish line, the first of two bombs went off just meters away from the finish line of the Boston marathon. The bombs killed 3 people and injured 282. I happened to be visiting the US at the time and with many across the world, my prayers went out to the people of Boston for the trauma, heartache and loss that they experienced. Watching the drama that unfolded for several days afterwards and resulted in the capture of the two brothers who carried out the act, I thought there were several things that I and perhaps my countrymen could learn from the way the Americans responded.
The first lesson was how the typically liberal US media regulated itself. Despite the fact that many of the injuries were grievous, involving mutilation, shrapnel wounds and loss of limbs and that the site of the bombing reportedly resembled a chaotic war zone, you’d hardly have known that from your TV!
Just like in the 2011 twin tower attacks that kiled over 3000 or the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster that killed over 1800, the media shied off from televising dead bodies and gory injuries. Instead they showed what was clearly a sanitized picture of the bombs going off after which they quickly moved on to pictures of candles, cards and flowers placed on the site by mourners to commemorate the victims. The reports focused not on the carnage but on the investigation and the determination of their leaders to bring the perpetrators to justice.
I marveled at how different this was from our own approach, which has in the past tended to display uncensored bloody pictures to a gleeful international media that then sensationally splashes them across the world. Such pictures indelibly shape the world’s perception about us and of course negatively impact tourism and foreign direct investment. Or put in layman’s terms, they cut jobs and reduce the food on our tables!
The second impressive thing was how quick the Americans were to humanize the victims. Far from faceless bodies, their names and sympathetic biographies soon filled the airwaves and revealed them to have been the girl next door or the bright child with a great future. The media interviewed the families of the victims with great sensitivity, allowing us to identify with them while being sensitive about their need for privacy.
In many of our own disasters, we have instead tended to dutifully upload to the watching world pictures of nameless, suffering Africans. The net effect is apathy by those watching, and a lowering of dignity for our people as a whole. On this count, I am encouraged by recent outraged campaigns by Kenyans online against biased international journalists and media houses.
But by far the thing that stood out the most for me was the heroic portrayal of law enforcement officers and others who played a role in the whole process. Right on cue, the media was running segments with titles like ‘The Heroes Of Boston’, and the story of the investigation and subsequent arrest of the suspects began to sound suspiciously like a Hollywood thriller! This intrinsic American ability to create heroes of its citizens started with the Wild West cowboys and has gone on to define the staple fare of movie theaters across the world. No wonder children everywhere including here often wish that they were born or lived in ‘the land of the free and the brave’!
My own observations based on my travels are that Americans are no more or less heroic than any other culture. They just know how to create and celebrate local heroes better than the rest of us!
This is a skill that we too must learn and nurture. Heroes abound around us, from our fearless KDF troops that liberated neighboring Somalia to the regular cops who daily protect our lives. They include our world beating athletes and our farmers who grow the best coffee and tea in the world. But there are also many ordinary heroes around us every day, creating solutions for people in our informal settlements and rural areas, providing employment through their entrepreneurial efforts or just serving the public with dedication and commitment despite meagre resources.
Maybe we as a nation need to spend much more airtime celebrating our heroes than complaining about our villains!
And then as I wrote this, another thought struck me. What if we could learn to act this way even when there are no disasters? Is it possible we will begin to realize the potential of this great nation? Is it possible that our elected politicians will be forced to actually start acting honorably in order to get public attention? Is it even possible that one day in the future, kids around the world will wish they were born or lived in ‘the land of the heroic Kenyans’?
Something I read online after the marathon…
If we gave more media coverage to every hero of a tragedy than we gave to the person behind it, people would start to realize that attention and validation goes to those who do good, not harm!