It’s been over a week since the attacks in Paris and Beirut, and it’s time we step back from the online compassion hurricane to face some uncomfortable truths about ourselves – and about who we reserve our empathy for. The truth is, we cannot continue blaming the media for the West’s lack of empathy toward non-European deaths. When twin suicide blasts struck a neighborhood in southern Beirut last Thursday, I immediately received a notification on my iPhone. BBC reported on the bombing. The Washington Post reported it. The New York Times reported it. Most major news networks reported it. It is clear that we are not suffering from a lack of news coverage – to say so would be a grave disrespect for the men and women who risk their lives to report on the conflict zones that we so often choose to ignore.
What we are really suffering from is our collective compassion fatigue – our weariness for truly caring about the wholly foreign tragedies that we have become so used to seeing. What’s another bombing in Beirut – after all, isn’t that what people do over there in Middle East? What’s another car bomb in Baghdad? A school shooting in Kenya? Aren’t all these countries war zones?
This past year, I lived in Jordan, another non-Western country dubbed both vaguely and erroneously as a “war zone” by my friends and family in the States. While working at a news website there, I posted countless articles on deadly bomb blasts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Syria; the list goes on. I doubt that my two hands are enough to count the number of bombings just in Baghdad, the brilliantly eternal city now permanently stamped in our collective Western memory as “conflict-ridden,” as if diseased with some quietly Orientalist notion of the inherent violence that “people over there” inflict on one other.
One of the Baghdad bombings – the one I remember most vividly – claimed over one hundred victims. Not one of these victims became the huge news stories of the day, plastered garishly across the Facebook timelines of a collectively shocked and traumatized world audience. Nobody posted neatly transparent Iraqi flags over their profile pictures, the country’s motto “Allahu Akbar” written in depressed green across their faces. And yet, there I was, writing neat and orderly articles on every single one of those bombings, the neighborhoods and communal alleyways where they occurred, the casualties, the “detonated in a busy marketplace following Friday prayers,” the “five children dead,” the “locals examine debris following deadly Baghdad car bomb.” Nobody took to Facebook to express their shock, using the heavy-handed formal English reserved solely for official government statements and social media warriors bravely tackling the world from behind their laptop screens.
Why is it that we don’t care when deadly attacks happen to distant people in distant cities and their hidden neighborhoods – “terrorist enclaves” even, as some have called these places, as if to cheapen the deaths of the innocent people within them?
We are millenials. We operate under the delusion that we are open-minded, worldly, accepting even– which we mutter mistakenly, as if to say there is something inherently negative about others that we must accept in order for our inner social justice demons to hop off our shoulders.
It is easy to blame the media when something we pretend to care about is not the trendy topic of our Facebook newsfeeds. But it is time we grapple with some awkward, unsettling truths about ourselves. The truth of the matter is – the media did report Beirut and it did report on April’s devastating Kenya massacre. It’s us who didn’t make those distant deaths into the fashionable tragedy du jour. And that is precisely why we are still so uncomfortable about Paris. It’s why those of us who didn’t hear about the Kenya massacre until last week still feel uncomfortable. And it’s why we still feel a nagging guilt, because we truly did not care about Beirut until violence unfolded in Paris the next day. These tragedies have become jolting reminders of who we truly don’t care about, and why. And it’s time we address this apathy for what it is.