The outpouring of support for Paris has been mostly inspiring, but one class of reaction has been especially odd: the scolds who chide our hypocrisy for caring so much about predominantly white, European victims while reacting less emotionally to the plight of the victims of terrorist attacks elsewhere. These unfortunate discrepancies are, supposedly, signs of latent racism, rather than something less insidious.
Comparing the response to the comparative global silence after a pair of suicide bombings in Beirut, Aryn Baker argued in Time, “Whatever the reasons — and there are many — for the disparity of global reaction, the message that emerges from these twinned events is that some lives matter more than others.” Claire Bernish’s headline on theAntiMedia.org contended: “America: Your Solidarity with Paris is Embarrassingly Misguided.” The piece held that “as long as you wear just one flag, your attempt to stand with victims of terror is a most embarrassingly hollow solidarity, indeed.”
This is nonsense. Grief is a personal emotion, and when it’s felt authentically, it is not always fair or proportionate to world demography. Grief is not in the same category as things like voting rights, criminal justice, education or work. It is not a matter for justice. People are allowed to grieve the way they want to grieve. If something moves them more than something else, that is fine. Many people have visited the City of Lights and found meaningful experiences there. Many other people have cherished family, friends or colleagues there who loom larger than an anonymous victim. That affinity doesn’t necessarily come from a hateful, ignorant or otherwise bad place. That’s just being a human and having feelings. No one has the right to police that.
What’s more, the tragedies in Beirut and Paris shouldn’t get the same kind of coverage. Beirut is less than an hour’s drive from Syria, a country wracked by civil war. Internal frontiers shift constantly, rebels battle the government, which battles the so-called Islamic State. The Lebanon-Syria border is porous, and Syrians cross it easily. Beirut itself has been a war zone several times in the last 30 years.
Paris, meanwhile, is usually a safe city (the Charlie Hebdo attacks notwithstanding). It is more than 2,000 miles from the war zone, and it’s generally thought to be pretty hard to get inside the European Union from the Middle East, even with the surge of refugees. A week ago, people reasonably had different expectations about which was most vulnerable to Islamic terrorism. It is simply not as surprising when suicide bombers kill 37 people near a prolonged civil war as when six coordinated large-scale attacks unfold in a city that is nowhere near any kind of active conflict, killing 129 (more than triple the total in Beirut). Even the logistics to plan an attack like this, far from the home front, shows a sophistication and scale of operations that transcend our previous understanding of the Islamic State.
Paris, then, defied expectations. That was scary, and it made readers and viewers question what else they have underestimated. No wonder it elicited a much sharper, louder response among the press and among Western social media users. It would be a much better world if all people could have an equal and reasonable expectation of safety, but that’s not the world we live in.
Finally, these other attacks — the ones we absolutely should be caring about, too — were covered, on front pages, including the shoot-up of a Kenyan university earlier year and the Beirut suicide bombings. As Erin Cunningham, the Post’s Cairo correspondent, put it: Please don’t lament our lack of coverage to journalists across the Middle East who rush into unsecured bomb sites in order to report those stories.
Yes, the world is full of racism. Many people do see others as alien. To address that problem, more empathy is always better than less empathy. But while all people are created equal, it is no crime to rue the loss of something familiar more than the loss of something remote or altogether unknown. We weep for the loss of a relative to cancer, but not for the loss of a stranger to the same disease. Does anyone really believe that grief is supposed to tell us something about the relative values of their lives? Are we any less committed to fairness or justice for loving our loved ones? There is no need to convince people that the manner in which they express sincere sorrow is somehow harmful to others.