Boston: Compassion During a Terrorist Attack

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

One of the outstanding outcomes of the recent terrorist attack in Boston was the helpfulness of spectators of the Boston Marathon and the rapidity with which police and emergency personnel responded to the tragedy. However, logic says that spectators would have immediately left the scene without helping anyone and emergency crews would have taken their time to avoid injury to themselves. After all, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that bystanders will not come to the aid of someone who is being attacked by a bully or thief.

It has also been demonstrated that people in big cities are the least likely to respond to help strangers as compared to those living in small towns. It seems that strangers are not likely to help. What has also been demonstrated is that, when people do help, it is usually others who are most like themselves. Yet in the aftermath of the marathon bombing, diverse people visiting the Boston Marathon from all over the world, strangers, citizens of the big city of Boston, ran towards the emergency in order to help perfect strangers who were injured by the attack. They stood side by side with emergency crews to assist anyway they could.

Melanie Tannenbaum of the Greater Good Blog, wrote in a Blog entitled “Cooperation after a tragedy” that many people find it difficult to help when a situation is ambiguous, as in the Marathon bombing. As Tannenbaum states, “People are significantly more likely to provide help in a dangerous situation if they are clearly aware of what is going on. For example, in one study, participants who watched someone faint and slowly regain consciousness were much more likely to help out than those who simply walked in on someone who had already fainted. If you don’t know what’s going on, there’s a lot more confusion — a reaction that tends to lead people to freeze rather than actively help.”

As Tannenbaum goes on to state, “When faced with unimaginable tragedy, in a terrifying situation where people did not know how to respond or behave, when no one could know if there would be any more bombs being detonated or any more people being harmed, in a set of circumstances that, by all logic and reason, should have discouraged most people from lending a hand, people still jumped into the crowd and helped. In droves. They stepped up, pitched in, helped strangers. They put themselves in potential danger to make sure that strangers were okay.”

There are some explanations for this extraordinary behavior. First, as Positive Psychology stresses, there is an inborn altruism in human beings that first shows itself during infancy. Babies actually show distress when they see another baby or adult in pain and this is far younger than was previously thought. We have an inborn willingness to empathize with others. In addition, it feels better to help because it helps gain a sense of control under emergency circumstances.

I remember being in the first electrical black out during one hot summer in New York City. I was riding the subway when the train suddenly stopped. It never resumed service and we were told to disembark from the train onto the subway station. None of us knew what was going on except that, when we got out into the streets they were unexpectedly dark. Unusual for the “city that never sleeps.” I was in Midtown Manhattan but lived far north in the Bronx. The only way I could get home was to take a bus that travelled from Manhattan to the Bronx. I got a birds eye view of what was happening on the bus and in two Burroughs of the city. The amount of help people were giving one another was extraordinary. People were in the streets directing traffic. There were no traffic lights and not enough police. Samaritans, including myself, were helping the elderly, handicapped and parents of young children. Others were in the streets with flashlights lighting the way for people who were trying to get into their apartment buildings but could not because of the lack of light. In my building, when I finally got home, I helped a couple of people get upstairs to their apartments in the darkness, no small feet.

When I look back on that event, I can identify with those who helped in Boston. While being in a black out is nothing like the violence of the bombing in Boston, the urge to want to help is the same. In many ways it felt to me that assisting others was a way of assisting myself. It also felt really good. For once, there was a spirit of congeniality among diverse New Yorkers back in the 70″s.

In times of crisis it is important to remind ourselves of the good and not be tainted one violent terrorist attack that occurred. It’s too easy to over generalize after something like this. Over generalizing is something the Cognitive Behavior Psychologists teach us to avoid, along with catastrophizing. These reactions cause us to feel even more depressed and anxious after events such as this. In fact, that is why helping is so good. One does not have to be in Boston to help and it need not be for a violent event. There is plenty of help that is needed on a volunteer basis that help give a sense of control and good feeling.

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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