The response of some, as in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, to today’s events in Boston and Iraq is to lament the lack of coverage given to those massacred in Iraq compared to the currently likely to be endless live coverage of events in Boston. Why do we focus so much on some atrocities and not others in the media? And even personally? Specifically, incidents in “Western” countries over everyone else?

Those who point out this disparity are right to do so, but I’m not sure how much their ire is a complaint rather than saying they can’t understand why coverage is unequal. So why are we seeing a lot more coverage of the incident in Boston than Iraq?

1. Boston is more personal. Many more people will know people from Boston, people who have recently been to Boston, or recently been to Boston themselves. This is not the case with Iraq. I know all three are almost true for me. All events of this nature are tragic, whether you know people or not, whether you know a place or not, but certain events bring situations like this closer to home than others.

Ultimately, if I go to Boston, I expect it to be a place like my own town, relatively secure. If I go to Iraq, or if I know anyone in Iraq, the chances are it will be because it is insecure, rather than in spite of it. Most Iraqis I know and have known haven’t lived there for a long time, or don’t at all.

2. And this leads to the second reason. Boston is more like my town than anywhere in Iraq, due in part to the above. Does this make the victims in Boston worth more? No, but it does lead you to empathise more with the normality of the place and the extremity of the incident. This doesn’t meant I can’t empathise and don’t empathise with the victims and families in Iraq, but despite the magic of globalisation, I have no real connection to them – there’s a psychological distance.

3. Similarly, Iraq is unfortunately seen as an insecure country. This is seen as the norm rather than a departure from the norm. This is a sad thing to say, and shouldn’t be the case, but it is.

4. Particularly with certain incidents such as this, it happened at an event that happens in many places in similar countries (as well as Iraq), a marathon. Similarly, in the UK, we have the London Marathon in less than a week, which heightens the link.

I do wonder how we would get parity between these incidents. Do people want less coverage of incidents in Western countries? Or should we treat incidents in Iraq in the same way, with rolling coverage? The latter would certainly elevate the horror of events in Iraq, and perhaps change perceptions that this should not be the norm. Unfortunately this is never going to happen, at least for a long time, for a number of reasons – it isn’t feasible, it isn’t “attractive” for news organisations, and yes, there are inherent biases in the media which would also draw attention away from this.

Does this mean one set of people are more valuable than another? No, although it may seem that way. What can be done to bring about more parity between the treatment of such events, and bring about a greater sense of humanity between people across the world? I’d like to know myself. I’d like to hear other people’s ideas. I imagine we would need a major change in how we view other countries, which would involve making strong and direct links with people across the world. Essentially, do what globalisation “promised” – connect the world, but the whole world, not just half of it.

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The murder of 26 people, 20 of whom were children, yesterday in and around Sandy Hook Elementary School was horrific. This particular shooting appears to have affected people, including myself, more than many of the other massacres in the United States and worldwide, due to its scale and its victims.

The conversation that has followed has included the predictable arguments of “don’t politicise the tragedy”, “this is not the time for debate” and so forth. But thankfully this time around these arguments are more muted, and don’t appear to be in the majority. Perhaps due to the shocking nature of the targets of the shooting. Even so, with President Obama alluding to actually doing something on gun control, this is an unfortunate but necessary opportunity to actually make sure he follows through.

Some of the debate to follow the horrors in Connecticut has centered around gun control vs. better mental health provision, as this cartoon does well to depict.

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This need not be a dichotomy. There is no doubt that most of the individuals involved in these sorts of massacres are highly disturbed. Call them terrorists, call them psychopaths, there is clearly something not right with them.

It is apparent that America has a massive mental health deficit which needs addressing immediately. But there are two issues with this. Firstly, if we improve services, there is no guarantee than individuals needing better access to them will use them. The very nature of mental health is complex and just by improving services, it doesn’t follow that people who need them will use them. People need support systems around them  to help them and advise them in the right direction. Many of those responsible for mass killings of the kind yesterday will not have such a system, or it will be massively deficient. This in itself needs addressing. Secondly, and following on from this, if someone isn’t listed anywhere as suffering from mental health issues, then people who sell guns will have no idea that they are selling guns to them. As such, mental health reform is vital, but not sufficient to reduce the chances of another attack.

So the question can be asked, in a similar society to the United States, such as the UK, why do we have so few rampage killers?.

I’ve known a few people over the years who would likely fit the profile of the perpetrator in this case and so many others. This is not to say someone psychologically disturbed, rejected, alone and afraid will turn into a mass murderer, but clearly every society contains people of this nature. Of course in the UK we have more access to mental health provision, as with so many other areas of healthcare, even if from what I’ve learnt from many friends it is particularly limited. But the other difference, at least here in the UK, is that we have vastly reduced access to extreme firepower. And there are three reasons why this is significant.

1. The psychological distance

I’ve never shot anybody or stabbed anybody, but I’d imagine it’s a damn sight easier to shoot someone from a distance than to get up close and personal and stab them, hit them, or any other close combat. In doing the latter, someone sees and feels their victim. Shooting someone removes someone from the reality of the act a stage further. The projectile makes the contact, breaches the distance, not the perpetrator. Unless someone was getting particularly high from the actual contact itself, a gun will likely always be a preference in this case, when available. There are other ways of killing lots of people, especially via chemical and biological agents, but often there is no guarantee that they will kill, and no guarantee they will kill who the perpetrator wants, which I imagine is the intention in many of these cases.

2. The practicality

As above, a gun allows someone to keep somewhat of a distance from their victims. Using a knife or something in close combat risks being overpowered by the person being attacked or someone else doing likewise. Obviously on top of this, guns allow someone to kill many people quickly, without having to move far, whereas a knife requires someone to go to each victim whilst the rest are able to flee. Other methods such as use of biological and chemical agents of course have massive practical limitations and require advanced knowledge and planning. Picking up a gun can be a relatively spontaneous act. With the former, there is a clear level of advanced commitment needed.

3. Killing yourself

Simply put, most people in these situations don’t intend to live with the consequences. Looking at a sample of rampage killers from the US, of the 27 most significant incidents since Columbine in 1999, 22 killed themselves, 2 were killed by police, and 3 were arrested. Another clear feature of a gun is it makes killing yourself quick and easy after performing such disgusting acts. Indeed, guns are the tool used in the majority of suicide cases in the United States.

These factors will surely play a major part in someone deciding to perform such a heinous act. The ease of access to firearms is thus a major contributing factor to the prevalence of these kinds of acts in the United States, and their absence, at least at such a high frequency, in many other countries.

But mental health reform is of course vital too. One thing mental health reform will do that gun reform won’t be able to at least is to provide help for those who already have weapons, and would be worried they might one day use them “irresponsibly”. Any reform on sales, or even an assault weapons ban, will not result in every assault weapon being handed over. Providing easy and decent access to mental health services will really help here.

But ignoring major reform of Americans access to weapons, especially assault weapons, will only be setting the stage for the next massacre.

The events unfolding today in the Koreas are of course deeply worrying. For two countries that have technically been at war for over half a century, anything can tip the fragile situation over the age and lead to a resumption of hostilities. North Korea is rightly seen as a pariah, and the blame has naturally fallen on the country for what has happened today, based on the little information has come out from both nations. The North Korean response that  “The South Korean enemy, despite our repeated warnings, committed reckless military provocations of firing artillery shells into our maritime territory near Yeonpyeong island… [Pyongyang] will continue to make merciless military attacks with no hesitation if the South Korean enemy dares to invade our sea territory by 0.001mm.”.. does not exactly fill one with confidence that they are an innocent party.

I’ve just read the short but interesting little piece by Bertrand Russell called ‘Unarmed Victory’, following the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Sino-Indian border dispute. These cases highlight quite well, at least from Russell’s point of view, how any objectivity, even when things seem so clear, can easily be lost due to ideological leanings. Now I don’t know anyone who supports North Korea, even to those who hold similar political heroes as they purport are mindful enough to steer well clear. But the response is pretty similar to the response to Russia and China in the 1960s. Both states were seen as a the guilty party, and even when they made grand concessions, were still seen as double crossers. Despite the fact, according to Russell, that both had quite strong cases in their relative disputes. Now of course, to suggest South Korea is to blame is premature. But then, despite everything we know, States, the media, and individuals are already coming to blame the North, and this too is also premature. I’m sure as the day goes on, they may be proved right, if we are to ever know (doubt, though less doubt, still hangs over the South Korean sub sunk a while ago), but laying the blame so soon is counter-productive, if peace is the aim. The media and individuals you expect it of, but States should know better.

Things are never as clear cut as they are made out to be, especially in disputes such as these. Mistakes can be made. The US almost attacked Russia during the Cold War due to simple errors in radar systems, and I believe even a bear near a military base at one point. Peace is fragile. The interesting thing in this case is the South have come out and said they were performing military tests in the region before they were fired upon. They claimed they fired West, and not North. This is along a fragile and disputed border. There is room for error therefore, on both sides. The South Koreans may have fired too far North-West and provoked the North. Or the North may have felt they were fired upon, incorrectly, and retaliated. But performing such measures so close to a tense border is bound to increase tensions and is surely ill-advised.

Of course an additional problem in all this could be the fact the UN Secretary General is from South Korea. I’m a firm believer that you can easily jettison your countries interests for the greater good, and I’m sure Mr. Ban has this capacity, but this doesn’t change the fact that many people, especially the North and its allies, may see him as having a bias in this situation, which cannot make UN arbitration in this dispute very easy. It surely raises questions over a Secretary General coming from a state that is technically at war with another state.

This renewed conflict is only a few hours old, and anything can change over the next few hours. The South tends to make some ill-thought out moves to which the North can have rightful anger, at least from past history, and the South of course has very just concerns that it shares a border with an insane, nuclear-armed state. Hopefully, things will calm again, although a diplomatic settlement is highly likely. The best we can hope for is that the big guns aren’t brought out, and other states don’t become involved militarily.