We mourn with the citizens of Sri Lanka, appalled by the wanton bloodshed of Easter’s suicide attacks. At least 290 people were killed, four of them Americans, and 500 injured, mostly in attacks on churches and luxury hotels. And a nation still recovering from a horrific 26-year civil war that only ended in 2009 was plunged back into an era marked by fear, uncertainty and suspicion.
But the tragedy that rocked the South Asian island also resonated in America for the way it evokes our own struggle with broad themes like national security, multiculturalism, and technology.
Sri Lankan security forces apparently failed to heed detailed warnings that included names and phone numbers of the alleged plotters, a small radical Islamist group that might have been inspired by the Islamic State to commit one of the worst terrorist attacks since 9/11. The tensions there have been rooted in Sri Lanka’s multiculturalism; the nation is mostly Buddhist, with smaller numbers of Hindus, Muslims and Catholics — stark lessons in the consequences of inefficiency and intolerance.
After the attacks, the government shut down social media to stop the spread of misinformation and reduce the danger of more violence. But social media also can be used to combat disinformation and rumors, and it allows people to contact loved ones. And such information blackouts can morph into tools of authoritarianism. Last year in Sri Lanka, rumors on Facebook’s newsfeed played a key role in escalating tensions that led to Buddhist mob assaults on Muslims. Falsehoods on social media have been instrumental in fueling ethnic violence in other places like Indonesia, Myanmar and India.
The Easter bombings raise difficult questions about technology’s role in inflaming tensions. We also have experienced that in the United States, though not to the tragic degree seen in Sri Lanka.
We empathize with its citizens in their time of grief, and we must learn from their loss, while being thoughtful about our own challenges.