I’ve written this piece quickly, and it’s really a response to what I’ve seen on social media about yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Paris – my alternative to a Facebook status. It is intended not as a journalistic exposé but as a portrayal of my opinion and, while I have carefully considered what I say, I haven’t done a huge deal of research. If you have interesting articles or facts and figures, or just responses to share, I’d appreciate hearing them.
As many of you will know, just over two years ago I witnessed a fatal car crash. Its effect on me was incalculable, even though I had only just met William, the victim. Had it occurred the previous day, I would probably have felt nothing more than a slight pang of sympathy at the news article announcing the incident. However, because I did briefly meet him, and because of my presence that night, his loss became the single most significant event of my life so far. It still defines aspects of my relationship to myself and others, and my approach to life, that I had never previously thought to question. Because of this chance encounter, too, I subsequently learnt more about William, met his family, and tried to understand and share their much deeper grief.
What happened to William gave me a newly concrete sense of the weight of tragedy inherent in every single untimely death, wherever it occurs. Even in our privileged, peaceful lives, nearly all of us will experience at first or second hand the outrageous grief and shock of someone we knew being taken away prematurely, sometimes with the jarring violence of an accident or crime. Today, because of the terrorist attacks in Paris, many are facing such a blow and having to recalibrate their entire perspective on a world out of which friends and family have unjustly been torn. Such grief is not something that any individual is capable of feeling in relation to every human death; we just haven’t got the mental capacity to handle that much pain. Because of this, trying to personally mourn the victims of each act of violence or terrorism that occurs in war-torn countries across the globe would emotionally paralyse us.
I’ve seen people questioning why deaths in countries like France generate mass outcry over here, while terrorist attacks in other regions, even when adequately covered by the media, rarely lead to the viral changing of facebook profile pictures in the UK. Of course, there are many complex factors at work in this asymmetry – this article delves deeper into some of them, especially race, and it’s worth a read (although it focuses on Australia) to explore aspects I’m not addressing. Personally, I think it’s not the magnitude of a disaster but its proximity to us – geographically and socially – that has the greatest effect. Almost everyone I know has friends, or friends of friends, in Paris right now. Just as the death of a family member affects us more than the death of a stranger, fear for our loved ones forces us to picture the effect of terrorism as something immediate and horrific. For most Brits, personal connections, even second-hand ones, don’t really exist in relation to countries outside Western Europe, Australia or America. Although they deserve compassion and help as much as anyone, the murder of people further afield by IS (such as this attack) does not ignite such a direct, visceral response; the figures seem more abstract and play on our minds, not our emotions.
The double standard of our reaction to terrorism near and far from home is analogous to the paradox by which news stories about torture sicken us, while we happily entertain our small children with Horrible Histories books documenting the hideous punishments inflicted on criminals in the UK hundreds of years ago. Essentially, we care about our own temporal, spatial and social community and a few extensions thereof. The importance of proximity in our emotional reaction to suffering means that merely decrying as amoral the shameful lack of attention paid to further-flung disasters, famines and wars can be ineffective . No matter how ethically desirable it is to care deeply about all such suffering, human nature doesn’t really work that way, hence the very existence of local news.
The way to deal with the selectiveness of human sorrow is not to vilify those who express their horror and sympathy for the Paris attacks, but to try and find ways of extending that compassion to the remoter disaster zones which are being ignored. This starts, but does not end, with media attention. Even if we cannot and should not feel the pain of every death we hear of, we should foster the power of empathy through connection, in order to tap into a better side of ourselves; for example, by encouraging interaction between refugees and the communities into which they are arriving, and sharing the individual stories of those involved. It is perhaps telling that one of my friends, who had holidayed and, crucially, made friends in Syria before the outbreak of war, is now actively involved in volunteer organisations helping refugees.
A related point, which others have expressed across the internet, is that we urgently need to complement the outpouring of solidarity for France with a willingness to combat the current ignorant, instinctive backlash of hatred against the Muslim community. Do yourself a favour and don’t look at the twitter response to the Paris attacks, where you’ll see a blind violence as destructive as the terrorism that inflamed it. The desire for justice is a powerful and ancient one, but the anger we feel should be directed against intolerant hatred, and as such should condemn prejudice just as it condemns the monstrous acts of a radicalised few. This article is a good summary of the risk we run when we lash out indiscriminately.
Finally, one positive implication of the limit on our capacity for experiencing others’ (and our own) pain is that we have the capacity to move on. This doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting, but it may mean protecting the small, ‘unimportant’ things in life from the depressing influence of what we hear on the news. To be excited by a new Star Wars film, or hurt by a small snub, or pissed off by a badly-designed window, is not incompatible with being appalled that people have been murdered; these feelings just operate on a parallel plane that will continue to exist becase it is the very substance of us. Just as we struggle to keep on living after bereavements, treating tragic world events with the gravity they deserve should not prevent us from caring about things that are nothing to do with terrorism and war and death. Through the anger and pain, the people who have recently been lost will be missed because of what they brought to the world; laughter, individuality and their own peculiar personal interests. Most of them were just people, doing small-scale people things. If we stop valuing those things, we are truly lost.
1. Of course, the mindset that prioritises white victims is a deeply wrong one, but here I’m focusing on individuals and their personal relationships, not societal biases. I do think the point about distance still stands if you take race into account, in the sense that even today we often, intentionally or not, create undue emotional distance between ourselves and others based on skin colour, reducing the perceived humanity of some tragedies. Another factor, I suppose, is that we become inured to hearing about violence within the context of long-term unrest or war, making it seem more shocking in peaceful settings.