Op-ed By Aidan Stoddart
We are all reeling from the recent attacks in Paris on November 13 that tragically ended the lives of 129 people and injured countless others. During the days that followed, an endless outcry of sympathy for the families of the victims, and for the people of France in general, flooded social media with such memorable hashtags as #PrayForParis, #JeSuisParis, and the strikingly stark #ParisAttacks.
Artists voiced their sadness and support on the internet, and internauts from around the world adopted their grief-made pieces as banners of the support movement. One image in particular sticks in my mind- sketched with some broad-stroked semblance of colored pencil, a somber and closed eye releases a teardrop encircling a drooping Eiffel Tower. Perhaps a more popular symbol was a peace sign whose interior was stylized to resemble the renowned landmark.
It has been amazing to witness the bravery and solidarity of the French people, and of the world, through the spyglass of the internet. Photos grace my Facebook wall, presenting world landmarks like the Sydney Opera House lit up like the French tricolor.
Impromptu memorials filled with flowers and candles go up in Moscow and Berlin. Crowds of teary-eyed and shocked Europeans carry bouquets in solemn procession across my line of sight as I gaze through the window of a BBC highlight video.
Our collected response to the attacks has really restored a good bit of my faith in humanity. But, it seems that all we care about is Paris.
Many of us will perhaps be surprised to learn that the Sunday after the attacks, bombs rocked a Baghdad funeral, killing seven people and injuring fifteen more. On November 17, an exploding bomb in the small town of Yola, Nigeria killed at least 32 people and wounded dozens more. The day before the Paris attacks, suicide bombings in Beirut killed 43 people and injured 239.
All three of these additional attacks have been attributed to Islamist militant groups (in Baghdad and Beirut, ISIS; in Nigeria, Boko Haram).
It was only after I expressed my condolences for the fallen Parisians in a shocked and simple Facebook post that reflected my bewilderment, only after I had clicked ‘yes’ to an offer from Facebook allowing me to add a tricolor filter to my profile picture, that I discovered news of events in Beirut (the bombings in Baghdad and Yola had not yet occurred), thanks to some exasperated Facebook posts from a couple worldly friends.
I realize now that Facebook didn’t offer to put a Lebanese flag filter on my profile picture. In fact, I had to look up the city of Beirut to remind myself that Beirut is the capital of Lebanon. And now that I mention flags, I find myself, as I write these words, begrudgingly opening up a Google Chrome tab to pull up Google images and discover what the Lebanese flag actually looks like. And the Iraqi flag. And the Nigerian flag. Because God knows I have absolutely no clue what they look like. And, as an American, I fear I’m certainly not alone.
Perhaps I’m overreacting. Afterall, the bombings in Baghdad and Nigeria happened after Facebook had already implemented the flag filter. And it’s also just a flag filter. But our stratifying of these terrorist attacks is backwards and unfortunate. And regardless of the trivial flag filter issue, I know the problem exists when I see the utter lack of coverage of the events in Beirut and Baghdad on the homepages of news sites, and when news of Nigeria is relegated to a tiny-font button on the side of the New York Times site- easily and comfortably forgotten.
Is the emphasis because the most people died in Paris? I think that if we ask ourselves how many deaths make a murder story newsworthy, our response has lost a great deal of humanity and has become robotic.
I fear that our emphasis has a much more uncomfortable cause, one that reflects what is perhaps an unconscious disposition in many Americans:
Africa, the Middle East- in the eyes of Americans, these gigantic and heterogenous regions of the world are monoliths, uncivilized and chaotic monoliths of dark-skinned, “Allah-u ackbar!” shouting, turban toting men who subjugate women and who spend their free time walking around the desert with camels, snake charmers, and suicide vests. We take these beautiful and diverse collections of many ethnicities, cultures, and religions and we simplify them to the worst possible picture. Because it’s easy.
“Middle East? Africa? Yeah, it’s a mess over there.”
We are not surprised by murder and violence in the Middle East and Africa because we have grown to see them as commonplace. For us, people are always just blowing themselves up out there. Big deal. Pretty normal. For us, France is somehow separate from the degradations of the Middle East; in a more “civilized” place, rather, in a place that is more like our home, a place that we perceive more humanely and complexly, the tragedy has a greater magnitude.
Therein the tragedy lies, because, I assure you, for the victims of the bombings in Yola, Baghdad, and Beirut, for their grieving families, and for the shocked populace of these cities, murder is certainly not normal. We relate to the plight of these individuals more than we think. They are just as much victims of terrorism as we are. The lives of the millions of individuals in these diverse regions are not some mess to be relegated to apathetic generalization; their lives are lives, worthy of our respect and attention.
And what good will have come of our struggle to fight terrorism in the Middle East and Africa if we continue to marginalize the complexity and innocence of the lives we save?