The outpouring of grief, shock and solidarity in the wake of the Paris attacks has led to an inevitable backlash:
A series of attacks in different parts of the world within a 24-hour period and guess which one gets most of our attention? Why aren’t public buildings in the West being lit up with Lebanese colours? Why no option to overlay my Facebook picture with the Iraqi flag? Don’t these lives also matter?
Of course they do! But, too often, there is a certain cynicism behind these arguments, or self-righteousness that borders on fascism. One friend who, like me, used the tricolor to express his solidarity with the people of Paris was forced to respond on Facebook:
“A French flag isn’t an endorsement of French values, governance, history or anything of the sort. It is just a gesture of humanity that you can make or not make as you choose. Yes, there are tragedies elsewhere and there are other causes. Feel free to identify with any one of those that you wish or several at the same time. But we should be above cynicism… Let’s not politicize grief.”
Even Facebook had to explain why it enabled its “Safety Check” feature for Paris and not for other recent attacks (http://www.theverge.com/2015/11/15/…).
The detractors are also ignoring an important psychological reality: We tend to empathise more with people with whom we identify in some way, or with those whom we simply feel are more “like us”. Whether or not that is morally right, cultural and anthropological differences do play a big role in how much we empathise with others. It’s what has been referred to by one psychologist as “the dark side of empathy.”
For example, I have an old friend who retuned home to Syria several years ago, before the start of the current conflict. I lost contact with him, but every time I see or read a report on the ongoing tragedy in that country, I find myself thinking mainly about Mahmoud. Is he safe? How is he being affected by all of this? I believe I’d care just as sincerely about the war in Syria and the resulting humanitarian crisis anyway, but surely knowing that a friend is being directly affected makes it much more personal to me. Indeed, would many of us care as much about Syria if so many refugees from that war weren’t pouring into Europe, quite literally bringing the tragedy home? And is it wrong that my support for those fleeing the terrible conflict in Syria is slightly tinged with a fear that this genuine humanitarian crisis might be exploited by extremists to bring terror to my own home city?
And Paris… I have some unease over France’s complicated relationship with the Muslim world and its own immigrant population. I have reservations about the role Western governments are playing in the Syrian conflict and others around the world. But… my own geo-political views notwithstanding, Paris is a city I love. I have friends there. It is a mere couple hours away from London. I’ve been to the Stade de France. I’ve walked past the Bataclan. On the news this weekend, I saw places I knew; streets that were familiar to me. I was contacting friends to check that they were safe. I’m sure there are people in the West who feel the same about Beirut. But for me, as I believe it is for many of us, the psychological distance with Beirut is greater. It’s not that I don’t care, or that I think Lebanese lives are of lesser value. There’s just a greater sense of personal vulnerability in the Paris attacks.
That cognitive disconnect is precisely what the terrorists depend on. When bombings and massacres happen in non-Western countries, it can feel like one of those bad things that happen to people in far-away places. When terrorists attack cities we might live in, hotels we might stay in, or nightclubs we might dance in, it feels like something that could happen to us. That’s a scary thought, which is exactly why the terrorists are doing it. We must not give in to those fears.
So I, for now, will keep the tricolor on my Facebook profile, in solidarity with the people of Paris. But I’ll also keep worrying about my friend Mahmoud in Syria and thinking about another friend, Rafat, who didn’t survive his trip back home to Libya some years ago. And I will use their stories to develop a deeper sense of empathy with the people of Beirut, Baghdad and Baga. Because, yes, their lives do matter.
But that’s not the only reason why we should be just as concerned about atrocities in other parts of the world as we are of terrorist attacks in the West. It is because as long as people are killing in the name of Islamist extremism, or any extremism, all of us are at risk. When terrorism flourishes anywhere, it strengthens terrorists everywhere.