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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

In Which We Experience 'That Moment When. . . '

People respond to tragedy in various ways.  The Eiffel Tower forms the peace sign's inverted 'V' in countless Facebook profile pictures, while in others the picture remains as it was before the events of November 13, only now superimposed by a ghostly tricolor.  #PrayforParis is a popular hashtag.  Whatever helps.

Less benign, though, are those status updates that chastise people for the apparent hypocrisy in condemning the French attacks while remaining silent about (if not ignorant of) similar attacks in other parts of the world.  They question why people pray for Paris but not Beirut, which suffered a major terrorist attack just one day earlier.  They ascribe to callousness the Western world's lack of sufficient grief at an attack on a university in Kenya--which seems somewhat off-topic, as the event in question happened some six months ago and was, as I recall, covered quite extensively by any number of news outlets.  But these people do certainly have a point: Western media in general devote exponentially more coverage to terrorist attacks against "First World" nations like France than they do to similar carnage in poorer places like Lebanon.  I guess my question is, And so?

Don't get me wrong: Any victims of terrorism deserve outpourings of sympathy; any bloodthirsty zealots spilling innocent blood in the name of delusional causes deserve scorn.  The French don't matter more than the Lebanese (or the Kenyan or the Chinese or the Australian).  But there are any number of reasons why the American news media would focus more on what happens in France than on what happens in Beirut.  Let's be honest: Walk up to a typical American--a good-hearted, caring, American--and say, "A terrorist attack just killed over 100 people in Lebanon," and that good-hearted person says, "Oh my God!  That's horrible!"  Walk up to that same American and say, "A terrorist attack just killed over 100 people in Paris," and that same good-hearted person says, "Oh my God!  That's horrible!  What happened?  Tell me what happened!"

Is that right?  Fair?  Equitable?  Maybe not.  But it is human: We identify with people who are "like" us.  The "typical" American--for better or worse--identifies more with France than with Lebanon or with Kenya.  It doesn't mean we don't care.  And frankly, the time to point out people's supposed "hypocrisy"--if, that is, you want to encourage more openheartedness--is not when those people are feeling understandably traumatized.  "Your buddy just died in a car crash?  Well, sure, that's sad, but what about the two-hundred civilians killed by Syrian airstrikes yesterday?  Why aren't you crying for them?!?"

Back in July, Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, elicited scorn when, in response to the activist "Black Lives Matter" movement protesting police brutality against African-Americans, he remarked that "All lives matter."  While the comment is undoubtedly right in a literal sense, it reflected a certain tone-deafness to the protesters' concerns.  Of course all lives matter, but that wasn't the point at that moment for that audience: People who were processing traumatic events and expressing their grief and outrage about those events.  I wonder if those expressing dismay at the lack of coverage of terrorism in Beirut, people whose general worldviews most likely mirror those of O'Malley's critics, realize that they just all-lives-mattered Paris.

And that's something I've noticed over the last few days: The way the events of last weekend have led to outbreaks of what can at best be called cognitive dissonance and at worst hypocrisy.  I'm speaking of myself here, too.  When I hear about France sealing its borders, or GOP hardliners calling hysterically for a ban on Syrian--or even Muslim--immigration to the United States, I roll my eyes and think, among other things, of how ridiculous such non-solutions are.  After all, I think, what good will sealing borders do, as anyone bent on infiltrating the US to wreak terrorist havoc will surely find ways around whatever laws we put in place. . . . And then I realize that I am making exactly the same argument used by NRA sympathizers to pooh-pooh attempts to strengthen gun-control laws.

It's been said that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.  Perhaps its also the wage extracted by events too terrible to rationalize.

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