What people got completely wrong about the Paris attacks

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Credit: Aitor Aguirregabiria

The Paris attacks earlier in November sparked a rather interesting Internet phenomenon: grieving wars.

On social media, blogs and news sites, the first wave of public mourning had hardly passed before people began to fight about the ethics of mourning.

Whom do we ache over, which events inspire our tears? A number of commentators decried the disparity in the way ISIS suicide bombings that incinerated scores of civilians in Beirut the day before the Paris attacks received little attention, while the whole world seemed to stop in its tracks for Paris.

Some commentators said that it wasn’t a media problem, but an audience one — the articles about Beirut were published, but relatively few people cared to read them, or make noise about them.

Others defended deeper melancholy for Paris: for many Westerners, Paris is likely to bring to mind a friend or a memory or a fantasy. By contrast, it’s likely most Americans could not name the country or continent that Beirut belongs to. Why should Americans not feel sadder for something they feel closer to?

Part of this whole debate is because the firehouse of sentimentalism on the Internet has the ability to turn just about anyone into a contrarian. And part of it is because in today’s media environment bludgeoning people with accusations of double standards or hypocrisy is a reliable way to keep the clicks coming and the rent paid. But the question remains: why does tragedy take on a different cast when in Paris than in Beirut?

I’d argue that there’s a flaw in the very premise of that question. This issue doesn’t fall into the category of tragedy, but horror.

The reality is that the questions people asked when trying to understand the exceptional nature of the response to Paris could’ve been much further-reaching. Why don’t people express such consternation when they hear about the far, far, far larger numbers of people dying in massacres in full-blown wars? From starvation? From preventable disease? From automobile accidents? From narcotics overdoses?

The power of the image of a gunman in a theater doesn’t lie in the body count he creates, but in the implication that one’s own body is vulnerable in a theater — the idea that a space reserved for ease and leisure can be bloodied unexpectedly. It rips a hole in the modern contract about what is supposed to be designated a safe space.

This fear is undoubtedly compounded by an element of xenophobia. Whiteness penetrated by darkness. The partially obscured, swarthy complexion of the assailant; his guttural tongue; his non-Enlightenment convictions. He lurks in the shadows, and materializes unexpectedly. He is unknowable, untamable. He is scary.

When someone is rattled by a shocking death in a horror film, afterwards they aren’t lingering on the death, but how and where it happened.

This observation is not in any way profound; the term terrorism is of course derived from the recognition that the effectiveness of such attacks lies in stoking fear.

But this distinction seems to be lost in the grieving wars. So it needs to be said: people in the West cared more about Paris, and always will care more about Paris, because Paris is supposed to be safe. And if Paris isn’t safe, am I safe?

And safety is of course political, but political in a different way than implied by the “all life should be considered equally sacred” line of thought pushed by some of the Beirut dissenters.

As Greg Afinogenov eloquently describes, the zealous ambition for security can be traced back to larger geopolitical ethos that mandates a totally safe global North and a global South that must endure whatever is required to ensure that goal.

Here’s an excerpt from his thoughtful post:

Ever since WWII the overall consensus strategy on the part of everyone in the ruling elite of the global North, from the most far-right capitalist to the most left-wing Politburo member, has been to export conflict from the North into all kinds of global peripheries. We expect to see violence in Beirut because we put it there. Our security states protect us from the blowback of whatever neocolonialist policies we might care to pursue on those peripheries. So what if we fail at nation-building? We’ll never have to “fight them over here,” not really.

….

The solution isn’t pretending like you’re oh so distraught when a bus full of Russians or Bangladeshis falls off a cliff. It’s pursuing a politics in which Western elites–that’s the people who govern us–have to take responsibility for the violence they displace onto other people. And that means acknowledging that the bubble they’ve created was created on our behalf.

The core issue underlying the Paris-Beirut disparity isn’t that people have small hearts and that they’re selective in whom they feel bad for, it’s that they’ve correctly assessed that one bombing implies far more about their security than the other.

So far, Russian airstrikes against ISIS have already killed more than 400 civilians in the Middle East. U.S. airstrikes have killed over 450. If you ask the average American about this, they’ll say that’s tragic, but it’s needed to keep our country safe. In this world, we believe that certain communities are entitled to safety, while others must earn it.

 

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