Not too long ago, I spoke with a man who had worked as a war reporter. Humans, he told me, have poured all of their constructive energies into coming up with increasingly more horrifying ways to kill and injure and maim each other. He didn’t elaborate, but that day I found myself looking straight into the eyes of someone who had seen horrors that I had never even heard about and still can’t even imagine.
I spend a lot of time thinking about tragedies and the Western media: how we report on them, and how we should be reporting on them, particularly with regards to the images we use – but, on a broader level, what our varying responses to them say about us. I will be the first to admit that there are no simple answers to these questions. They are tangled in with many historical, religious, political, financial and ethical debates that have had experts the world over in heated conversation for many years; and still, there is that lack of certainty.
Yet there is a key injustice in our communication of such events that needs to be addressed. Friday’s horrific attack in Paris saw an outpouring of solidarity from all over the world. For every hateful tweet disseminating false information, for every tweet inciting xenophobia and hatred, there would be another overflowing with sympathy and compassion on the #PrayforParis feed. But there was also a seemingly global silence about events happening in Beirut. It was a muteness that left me feeling disturbed and concerned.
According to the BBC, Thursday’s bombing in Beirut was the deadliest attack since the end of its civil war in 1990. Despite this, there was no trending hashtag flooding social media with support for Lebanon. Beirut residents didn’t have the option to mark themselves as safe on any social media platform. They did, however, on the following day, find themselves with the option to change their profile picture to express solidarity with Paris victims.
What I am getting at is this: 129 people were killed in cold blood in Paris on Friday. The world leapt to its feet. 43 people were killed in cold blood in Beirut four days ago. If Google’s search statistics are anything to go by, that was just another Thursday. When faced with tragedies like this, we always ask: how do we as humans find it in us to inflict unimaginable pain on one another?
But, equally, we should be asking: how do we manage to be so compassionate towards the victims of one tragedy and so willfully ignorant towards those of another? How do we decide which bodies are worthy of our grief and attention and which ones are relegated to a cursory mention in our papers and our conversations, if mentioned at all? How do we continually justify the fact that our painstakingly constructed narratives, both personal and historical, are built on the accommodation of some stories and the systematic exclusion of others? I am frightened of the fact that the answers to these questions may not be easily found.
Recent events have raised discussion about whether what works for one country’s suffering will work for another; the issue of the ‘safe’ button on Facebook available for those in Paris but not in other areas of atrocity has been discussed in depth, with Mark Zuckerberg accepting the criticism while others suggesting that given Lebanon’s recent turbulent history, a similar feature may not be as useful there. But this is a debate that goes far beyond Facebook. It is a debate that is, at its core, about creating hierarchies out of human suffering.
We should be in deep mourning for Paris and its losses. But we should also be in deep mourning for Beirut, for Baghdad, for Aleppo, for Palmyra, for the cities and countries experiencing extremist violence that don’t get worldwide mourning or a #jesuis hashtag or a ‘safe’ button on Facebook when these brutalities happen (and they will, and they do, all too frequently). We have been regarding the pain of others far too selectively for far too long. This is not enough. It has never been enough.
Words: Catherine Karellis
Images source: AP Images / Getty Images / European pressphoto agency