The attacks in Beirut, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Ankara…

It’s hard not to worry a little about the state of the world given all the brutal attacks these past six months, harming civilians going about their day-to-day lives. Late last year there were the attacks in Beirut and Paris, and since then there have also been attacks in Turkey as well as Belgium, just last week. Almost straightaway a friend in Belgium shared this cartoon by Plantu, a French cartoonist:

Not long afterwards it was amended by someone to include the attacks in Turkey, highlighting the problem of selective grief in a globalised world that feels dominated by the West — not surprising given the distribution of resources and power. A core issue being highlighted is that lives do not seem equally valued around the world.

The dates of the attacks in France, Belgium and Turkey

I’ve been thinking a lot about this and my thoughts are inchoate, but I believe that the online discussions do capture some essential truths — but the critique is a bit misguided, and unfair to those who express solidarity to some over others. A piece entitled ‘There’s nothing wrong with mourning Brussels but not Beirut‘ published in The Guardian a few days ago, makes this point well:

All these questions make a valid point, but their premise is flawed. A complicated confused medley of emotions, all possibly justifiable in isolation, together form a knot of resentment that refuses to accept the victimhood of those who have perished – because they are citizens of a powerful country, and victims elsewhere have not been afforded the same ceremony and grief.

It is a bleak tit-for-tat game of dehumanisation – with a flawed logic to make a point about the seniority of white deaths in a world where Islamic State kills far more Arabs every day. And one ends up guilty of the same crime – victimhood denial.

I found the attacks in Paris horrifying because I’ve visited many times and lived there for a summer, so as a place it holds many dear memories. And recently I lived for a semester in Leuven, very close to Brussels airport, and visited Brussels as often as I could. So I was deeply affected by the attacks last week especially when a good friend living in Brussels emailed a few hours after the bombs saying:

“Just a word to say that we are fine. To be completely accurate, I passed by the metro station 10′ before the explosion…”

If I hadn’t travelled to Lebanon recently and hadn’t spent a whole month in the past travelling in Turkey (and Syria), how would I feel about the attacks in those places? The short answer is I probably wouldn’t feel anything much, and that’s not because I’m unfeeling. It’s difficult to feel deeply about attacks in places where there’s no personal connection or familiarity. But in my case it just so happens that I’ve actually visited Turkey that I feel a bit of the horror of what’s happening over there. I have vivid memories of both Istanbul and Ankara from my trip there in 2006. Since last year I’ve been in touch with a Turkish friend to ask about what’s happening from his point of view and he noted that most Turks weren’t particularly sorry for the French and Belgians.

I guess a feeling of connection comes from family, friends, books, films and even languages, serving to make us feel closer to places we haven’t been to. And then if you do get to travel, that gives shape to places that otherwise only exist in your imagination. Having said that, from the vantage point of your armchair it is possible — even essential — to feel for others. And because we possess moral imaginations, we certainly can empathise with people far away in terms of geography and who might feel ‘different’ to various degrees. Feelings aside, I believe it’s important to act out of a sense of duty, and act in practical ways like give to earthquake victims in Nepal and refugees in Syria. At the very least, it’s the decent thing to do.

Some things do touch us more than others, like a young boy washed up on a beach, or a mother jumping off a cliff with her newborn — and that’s partly because single stories can cut through where the unarticulated ones are just statistics, to paraphrase an old saying. In our media-saturated world, it’s impossible to grieve over everything, otherwise you’d never get out of bed in the morning.

I’ve paid more attention to the attacks in Paris, Brussels and Turkey, places full of stories and people for me, and unfortunately I haven’t felt the same for attacks in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan. It would be dishonest of me to pretend otherwise. I suspect that some who are quick to criticise others are being a little disingenuous in their own feelings, even if their intentions may not be.

Read the article at The Independent which sparked this post: Turkish people are sharing this cartoon asking where our sympathy was for Istanbul and Ankara



7 thoughts on “The attacks in Beirut, Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Ankara…

  1. That’s a very thoughtful and insightful piece. I agree about why we feel more empathy perhaps in one situation than another, and in the same vein it can explain why I felt very moved and upset by the bomb in Lahore. This is because I visited Pakistan many years ago and when there I met a young Christian woman who worked for the family I stayed with. I learnt then how difficult her life was as a Christian living in a Muslim country, and I visited a park in Lahore. So the personal connection does create more empathy as we can visualise the situation and give a personal ‘face’ to the victims.

    1. Thanks for sharing that story, and yes you’re right that being able to visualise the situation and the people makes a big difference. And in your case Lahore has some meaning, but for me it’s a place I’d love to go to but haven’t — and may never get to

  2. I think there comes a time when one has to take a stand about right and wrong irrespective of religious beliefs. Secular democracy is far preferable to the alternatives being offered by Islam. Discuss.

    1. Possibly – but I don’t necessarily agreed that it’s Islam as a monolithic religious and cultural system vs secular democracy. Having said that, it’s concerning to see what’s been happening in Turkey the past decade

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