Osama bin Laden: Past, Present, and Future

Question: Who were Osama’s mentors?

Steve Coll: Immediately after his father’s death he sort of went to a day school, a prep school, in Jeddah, the only one to an international modern standard in the kingdom at the time and he was essentially recruited in to an Islamic group by a charismatic Syrian gym teacher at his prep school who mentored him and taught him and essentially indoctrinated him in to the Muslim brotherhood. And that was the beginning of a series of relationships with mentors, essentially professional mentors, that seemed also to have a sort of personal role in his life, Abdullah Assam, who was the collaborator and cofounder of the precursor organization to al Qaeda during the anti-Soviet war, Ayman al-Zawahiri, later the Egyptian who co-founded al-Qaeda with him. Though Zawahiri was his deputy, he was also in a sort of biographical sense also a mentor and a kind of a patron of Osama. The overall narrative is maybe not too surprising but worth just sketching, which is he’s a shy, privileged, wealthy young man who is recruited into international Islamic radicalism and is mentored and doted on primarily at first because of his money and his older, more ambitious mentors want access to what he has, not only his own deep pockets but also the fundraising world that he can open up in Saudi Arabia, but gradually as he ages and as he matures he either overthrows his mentors or slowly separates from them and develops his own ambition and his own very full, egotistical sense of his own capabilities. And I don’t think in the end he is a prisoner of his mentors. I think instead he sort of grows beyond them by and large, even Zawahiri.

Question: How do you think he perceives his role?

Steve Coll:  Well, you can see he’s always- he’s often been a creature of media and has yearned to be heard and this-, particularly as he came in to his own and decided that he had a role to play in this narrative that he imagined he had been called in to by God and where he was drawn also for reasons of his own ambition. He had an intuition about brand building and about media that was really one of his core talents and one of his core insights and a source of much of his innovation and achievement, and after 9/11 he had to repress some of those instincts because it was too risky to go on television as often as he might like. You can see him when he comes forward. Even after periods of silence he comes forward with a video or he comes forward with an audio tape and if you read through the text of everything he’s been saying since 9/11 when he does surface to talk or you look at those videotapes you have the impression of someone who’s in hiding but has access to a lot of media. He’s reading--  He’s clearly reading books. He clearly has access to the news whether it’s on the internet or on satellite television and he’s- and you- sometimes you almost have the sense that he’s watching President Bush on television make a speech and he just gets- he gets, “I got to talk. I got to say something. Bring my media guy.”  And then he goes and he makes a speech and he’s almost talking back to the global media. So I do think there’s- there is clearly an impulse that he has to be heard. That’s how he’s always conceived his role, as a vanguard, someone who stimulates and encourages others, not as someone who needs to control a political organization or be the boss but someone who inspires.

Question: Is Osama’s son preparing to take over?

Steve Coll:  Yeah. It sort of confirms the little bits of information that were available about his family’s circumstances in this period of exile. Osama has had at least four or five wives. The wives that are known are- have all returned to their home countries. I believe almost all of his daughters if not all of his daughters have also returned home. He has perhaps a dozen or more sons and of those some have returned home and some were believed, like Hamza, to be in exile with him if- perhaps living with him, perhaps living near him. There was an exchange between Osama and his son, Hamza, on the- on Jihadi web sites in late 2001 where Osama essentially wrote a letter to Hamza in the form of a last will and testament. And so Hamza along with a couple of other sons have clearly been with him. They’ve appeared in videos before as young Jihadis even at ages nine and ten. By now Hamza I guess--  I don’t know what the video shows today but I would guess he is about 16 or 17 and so he would have been one of the three or four that you would have guessed was roughly wherever Osama’s hiding along the Pak-Afghan frontier that Hamza is out there, too. Probably Laden and Mohammed and a couple others are out there as well.

Question: What does he make of his portrayal in American media?

Steve Coll: He clearly reads accounts. He’s not interested in his own biography and in fact he- he’s frustrating as a subject because he won’t talk about himself even- but as a political figure, as a militant, he’s very interested in his international reputation and he often mocks those who he thinks misinterprets him. So an example that I’m sympathetic to is that the cliché version of him and his leadership and his movement wants to locate him in a cave in a place where he is- he’s just completely looking backward and is isolated from globalization and from modern technology. And an expression of this has been the theory that maybe he was sending coded messages when he spoke on television and he wrote- he gave this very funny--I think he wrote it--this very funny essay where he mocked all these American analysts who think that he has to scrawl- imbed code inside his messages as if he’s living in area of carrier pigeons. And he basically says, “Look. I’ve got access to e-mail. I can e-mail people when I want to tell them what to do. I can call them. I’m living in the same world you’re living in. Stop trying to think that I’m using pigeons to communicate my messages.”  So I think he does get frustrated with some of those images.

Question: Where do you think bin Laden is today?

Steve Coll:  I think he’s along the Afghan-Pakistan border and I sometimes try to play a sort of- this parlor game that you could play with people who watch al-Qaeda or the- pay attention to the search for bin Laden. Suppose someone walks in to the room right now and says, “Osama’s been captured” or “Someone just hit him with a predator.”  You say, “Okay. Interesting. Don’t tell me where. Put a map up on the wall. Take a pin. Put the pin in the map and ten people closest to the hole wins. Where--  Who can come closest to where he actually was? And so where would you put your pin?”  And I would probably put it in north Waziristan around Miranshah and along the border. There’s an area there controlled by the Harkani[ph?] clan that he has long roots in. There are some risks to him if he stays in that area and so maybe it’s a little too busy and a little too trafficked. An alternative place where some other smart people who know the intelligence they tend to put their pins just a little bit north of that in Bajaur but it’s basically a general area around the federally administered tribal areas. Probably more north than south would be my best guess.

Question: Did the Bush administration have a role in writing this narrative?

Steve Coll:  Yeah, it did, very much in- at a couple of levels. It--  Osama’s ideology is not very fully formed. I don’t think his analysis or his ideology or his political program are by any means his strengths. His--  He has talents but ultimately this sense of ideology and strategy is not one of them and ultimately I think al-Qaeda will be defeated by the self-limiting nature of his ideology. However, to the extent that he has ideology, it has sort of two levels. One is a political, sort of terra firma here and now set of grievances in which he’s trying to give voice to an eclectic array of legitimate grievances in the Islamic world, and on the other hand he has a millenarian view of himself as leading a preordained war called by God that will end at the end of time. And at both levels the metaphor of war and the fact of war are central to his claim on his followers. So when the Bush administration after 9/11 announces a war against him and frames a global war in which he is the adversary it provides exactly the narrative that he’s been--  It reinforces and elevates and accentuates the narrative that he’s been developing, and certainly he would embrace and has embraced the sort of equivalency that the war narrative provides between himself and say George W. Bush. On the one hand, the president of the hyper-power of the post- early post Cold War period and on the other hand Osama bin Laden leading the righteous forces of Islam against the oppression carried out by that hyper-power. And the Bush administration sort of fairly quickly realized, especially after they turned their attention away from pursuing him and toward invading Iraq, that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to call attention to his--  So they- they’ve gone through this kind of bipolar sort of swings in their attitude towards Osama as an adversary trying to not elevate him by not talking about him, but then that only emphasizes the impunity that he seems to enjoy.

Question: What is al-Qaeda’s reach today?

Steve Coll:  What is al-Qaeda first of all?  It’s an organization with a particular leader and deputy leader and a bunch of committees and a headquarters sort of and some--  It is a continuous organization that was founded at meetings in 1988, has had the same bureaucracy and the same leader and deputy leader for 20 years. So there is an organization that’s called al-Qaeda that has a boss and it has committees that do finance and media and military. It’s more than that though. It’s also a movement that inspires followers who are disconnected from leaders. It’s also a network of like-minded organizations and it’s also a brand that attempts to attract other organizations and adherence whether in groups or as individuals. So al-Qaeda is I think properly understood as synthesis of these characteristics. Today al-Qaeda the organization is resilient militarily in the sense that they continue to be able to run medium-sized attacks in to Europe. They are struggling politically. I think they are strategically in a corner that they’re not likely to get out of very easily but the organization is still a factor in the security threats faced by not only the United States but also Britain and Germany and Denmark and other countries.

Question: What are your thoughts on the Hoffman and Sageman debate over al- Qaeda’s present condition?

Steve Coll:  I think they’re both right. I--  Here is a concrete example and I think it proves the case that they’re both right. The July 7 subway bombings in London--  I think you can--  The evidence is pretty well now established that that attack was supported by al-Qaeda headquarters in Pakistan and was supported by the travel that some of the participants in the plot undertook to meet al-Qaeda operatives in Waziristan and on the other hand the plot originated spontaneously in the disaffected lives of some Pakistani originated British citizens in Leeds. So on the one hand you could say that attack would never have occurred without the independent grassroots individual alienation of the Pakistani Briton in Leeds. On the other hand, it would not have occurred also without the resilient al-Qaeda organization. You can--  It’s like an Escher drawing. You can emphasize one side of that equation or the other but both are present in the narrative.

Recorded on: 07/10/2008


Steve Coll discusses bin Laden's family life, upbringing, and possible whereabouts.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
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  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
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One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.