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French Lives, Arab Lives

If I may depart from all things Mormon and address the other great issue of the moment…

“The worldwide tributes to Paris are beautiful,” an old friend wrote on Facebook. “The Empire State changed its colors to blue white and red…..people are able to change their Facebook profile pictures to the colors of the French flag…Saturday Night Live had a moving tribute….but I’m curious as to why I didn’t see any of these types of tributes when 150 souls were lost in Kenya or when 50 souls were lost in Beirut.”

Many others have expressed similar sentiments, and a blog post has gone viral on social media to add teeth to that observation. Titled “From Beirut, This Is Paris: In A World That Doesn’t Care About Arab Lives,” the writer – a Lebanese citizen named Elie Fares, who, I think, is male, but I’m not sure, so if I’m using the wrong pronoun, forgive me – talks about how he’s been troubled since the Paris attacks, but for a different reason than many.

“Amid the chaos and tragedy of it all, one nagging thought wouldn’t leave my head,” he writes. “It’s the same thought that echoes inside my skull at every single one of these events, which are becoming sadly very recurrent: we don’t really matter.”

I quote him at length:

When my people died on the streets of Beirut on November 12th, world leaders did not rise in condemnation. There were no statements expressing sympathy with the Lebanese people. There was no global outrage that innocent people whose only fault was being somewhere at the wrong place and time should never have to go that way or that their families should never be broken that way or that someone’s sect or political background should never be a hyphen before feeling horrified at how their corpses burned on cement. Obama did not issue a statement about how their death was a crime against humanity; after all what is humanity but a subjective term delineating the worth of the human being meant by it?

He concludes with the bleak assessment that we live in a “world that doesn’t care about Arab lives.”

Ouch.

I don’t blame him for thinking that way. Certainly it’s a question that merits further consideration. But, pragmatically speaking, there are other less pessimistic reasons why the situations are treated differently by the media and the public. The Middle East has been so volatile for so long that many view casualties in its war zones as grimly, tragically commonplace. I would attribute a lack of outrage not to a lack of compassion but rather to a surfeit of cynicism.  We’ve been at war in the Middle East for as long as my youngest three children have been alive, and we’ve grimly come to expect people, even innocent people, to die in that region. We’ve steeled ourselves against the misery by convincing ourselves that chaos, at least in that part of the world, is more or less commonplace. I think we do that as a spiritual survival mechanism rather than as an expression of racism.

The world was united in outrage when terrorism struck a peaceful setting like Paris because it reminded us that evil is unconstrained by geography. For good or ill, it’s far more noticeable to many when terror strikes in a locale so far removed from the day-to-day violence that many in Beirut have inexcusably had to endure for far too long.

So, yes. On its face, there is an undeniable inconsistency in the attention paid to one atrocity and not another. Some would call that deplorable, as it shows that, at least to some degree, we revere some lives more than others, and we’ve become inured to much human misery.

But there’s also a more encouraging way to look at this. The outpouring of compassion for Paris shows that the world is not so far gone as to be incapable of outrage in the face of horror. Rather than condemn any perceived inconsistency, the wiser approach is to applaud people’s better instincts as they search for ways to show love and support for those who suffer. That’s the approach likely to inspire greater compassion for all lives in all parts of the globe.

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