Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What if I don't feel bad about France?

While many Americans feel sad for Paris after the attacks of last Saturday, many have a different reaction. Some people, like me, are asking why the U.S. pours out the sympathy for Paris, but not for other places that have suffered bombings that resulted in civilian deaths. What about Beirut and Syria? What about the ongoing suffering of people in Mexico, Kenya, Iraq, etc? 

There are those who compare my response to the "all lives matter" response. I understand how they see a parallel between the two situations, but the role of the media in these two dynamics is very different. "Black lives matter" protests the media's -- and American society's -- ignoring of a certain disenfranchised population. Focusing on Paris and disregarding the pain of other countries perpetuates that kind of ignoring of disempowered populations. To question the focus on Paris is to protest the way the U.S. leaves certain people out of the news cycle. It's the political opposite of the "all lives matter" argument.

I'm one of those who's having a hard time whipping up a lot of sympathy for Paris. Saturday's attacks don't feel worse to me than any other country suffering an attack on civilians, but it's probably not because I'm so globally aware. It's probably because I'm not an international traveler, so I don't feel any more connection to France than to any other country. We feel sympathy when we feel an emotional connection and that's just human nature.

The American emotional response to the Paris attacks has bewildered me similarly to the way I was surprised after 9/11 when the whole world felt sympathy for the U.S. Such behavior makes me think, "Why does someone in one country care what happens to someone in an entirely different country that has nothing to do with them?" I'm beginning to understand that there's a kind of compassion that doesn't depend on direct impact or responsibility. That compassion manifests whenever you see someone who reminds you of yourself or your family or your neighborhood. Or, apparently, your country. Enough Americans personally identify with France, and see similarities between France and the U.S, to trigger our shock, sadness and outrage. Incredibly (to me), a huge part of the world felt a personal connection to the United States in 2001, which made them feel like an attack on the World Trade Center was also an attack on them.

Okay, so we feel compassion for those we identify with and Americans have an easier time identifying with French than with Kenyans. Fair enough. But it doesn't require any identifying with the victims to be horrified by a massacre carried out by your own country. The bombing of an Afghanistan hospital in October disturbed me much more than the Paris bombings because Americans were responsible for that. Doctors Without Borders had carefully made clear to both the American and Afghani militaries the location of the hospital, but it was still bombed for over an hour while the U.S. forces kept it under fire. What the hell? To this day the American inquiry into the incident/slaughter hasn't revealed what happened or why. This outrages me as an ISIS bombing doesn't because I take accountability very seriously, especially when it's mine or my country's. The U.S. has not behaved well in many countries and we have a lot of blood on our hands.

It's emotionally easy to curse "the Muslims" and rattle our swords at terrorists everywhere and swear we won't be victims. It's easy to weep for Paris or any country with dead babies and maimed children and civilian corpses. It's much harder to look at our own actions and admit the ways we've contributed to a global atmosphere of hatred and revenge. It all starts right in your own heart. Compassion is good, but we Americans have a particularly keen responsibility to follow up on those emotions. We need determination to do what we can to reduce distrust and fear because we certainly contribute to a hell of a lot of it. And that's my reaction to the bombing of Paris. Does anyone feel even vaguely similar?

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