The Privilege of Post-Terrorism Support & Sympathy

Paris overshaddowing beirut

Image Description: A photo of street in Beirut after most recent terrorist attack. There is a crowd of people, rubble, blown up cars, signs and banners, and Lebanese flags. There is a photo of an eye with the pupil the colours of the French flag with the Eiffel tower in the middle overlaid on the photo of the street in Beirut.

My Thoughts on the Paris Attacks and on Terrorism in General:

First and foremost, I would like to express my deepest sympathies with everyone impacted by the recent Paris attacks. The pain and fear Paris residents are experiencing is very real, and I by no means wish to invalidate or minimize that. I believe violence (except in the case of self-defense) is always intolerable, and there is absolutely no justification for terrorism.

I say all this because I know some people will be angered by what I’m going to say next. They might claim I don’t care about the Parisian victims. They might get defensive, claim they care about all victims of terrorism, but say Paris is just the most recent site of grief. They might argue that because the Paris attacks are such a fresh wound, this isn’t an appropriate time to focus on other cases of terror-based violence. So, I want to be clear that I do grieve for the loss of life and devastation in Paris, and I’m not excusing or minimizing terrorism or any other form of violence. And that is all I’m going to say in defense of my grief for Paris; anyone who doesn’t believe me can sod off.

The international support for France, and Paris specifically, after the terrorists attacks by ISIS was quick to appear and far-reaching in the western world. People rushed to tweet about their solidarity, change their Facebook profile picture to a a photo of the Eiffel Tower or French flag, or post an artsy “Pray For Paris” banner on whatever social media sight they favour (or use Google Translate to say “Prier Pour Paris,” which may or may not be correct, if they want people to know they really care about Paris). People all over the west are holding candlelight vigils in the name of France, Paris, and those who died. France’s neighbors and allies are supporting them politically as they drop 24 bombs on Syria in one night (Brumfield et al. 2015). Western media erupted with outpourings of sympathy for France, condemnation of terrorism, and demands for their own leaders to take action against ISIS. The New York Times, BBC, The Guardian, all the major news publications, and some local ones are talking nonstop about Paris, reporting on every detail, expressing their shock and grief. Even a certain well-known hacker group has declared cyber-war on ISIS because of the Paris attacks. (I could make a lot of jokes about this cyber threat on ISIS, but I don’t really want to get hacked by an angsty member of that group who randomly stumbles across this 9 months from now at 2 am.)

At first glance, this international support and sympathy might seem admirable to some folx. After all, isn’t it a good thing to have compassion for other people who are suffering? We might not be be French or live in Paris, but we care about the victims and their loved ones because they’re people too and we care what happens to them as global citizens, right? Yes, of course compassion is a good thing. But where was the mass international post-terrorist attack support for the people of Beirut last Thursday (the day before the Paris attacks) when 43 people were killed and 239 were wounded by an ISIS terrorist attack? (Wellman 2015) Or last April when at least 147 people were shot and killed in an assault by al-Shabab militants on a university in north-eastern Kenya (BBC 2015)? Or every day in Syria where a civil war has been raging for four years in addition to the “helpful” airstrikes from western “allies” that, at best, only destroy the country’s infrastructure. A total of 210,060 people have died in Syria over the past four years of war; that works out to be approximately 144 people a day – many of them civilians (Ahmed 2015). In fact, France is launching airstrikes over Syria now in response to the Paris attacks. Where are the candle light vigils for the Syrians who will likely be killed in those attacks?

None of those places received anywhere close to the same level of media coverage and international support as Paris did after terrorist attacks. And this is the norm; the western world largely ignores terrorism – which happens daily – until it happens to them. The global hierarchy places western life, specifically white, christian western life above the lives of Black and Brown folx living in countries we [westerns] don’t views as significant, autonomous players in international politics.

This double standard of support, sympathy, and even the recognition of incidents of violence as terrorism is problematic in several ways. First, it allows the west to ignore terrorism – the terrorism that we often fund, politically back, or are otherwise complicate in – in “insignificant” regions that harms “unimportant” Black and Brown people. The U.S. (and other western countries) like to think of ourselves as the world’s protector. We claim to have zero tolerance for global injustice and talk about our supposed duty to protect any week kids getting bullied by bad guys on the world’s metaphorical playground. (In reality, the U.S. is more like an abusive big brother who barges into their younger siblings’ bedrooms, uninvited, to fix problems which we often created in the first place.) Yet we ignore the daily violence and terror faced in places like Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Palestine, Somalia, and Nigeria because they’re unimportant to us. But when places like France are attacked, we’re deeply saddened and outraged. This allows us to oppose terrorism when it’s convenient and beneficial to our own interests, and turn a blind eye to – or even promote or engage in – terrorism at other times.

Second, this double standard prioritizes the life of white westerners over the lives of Black and Brown non-westerners. Beirut was attacked the day before Paris was attacked, but how many people did you see posting “Pray for Beirut,” or a Lebanese flag? In fact, Facebook didn’t even offer a Lebanese flag filter until a few people started pointing out how offensive that was.  Much of the west remained unaware Beirut had been devastated by a terrorist attack for days because they were only focused on Paris. Even when folx found out about other attacks, their reactions were… muted?… at best. To put it more bluntly, reactions to terrorism in non-westerns places were/are callus. We [westerners] either expect terrorism to regularly occur in places like Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Palestine, etc., and view it as an inevitable fact of life, or don’t care about those cases of terrorism because they’re so far removed from our own lives. And whenever someone mentioned Paris shouldn’t be given more media attention or international support than Beirut (or any other non-western country affected by terrorism), many westerns grew defensive about their one-sided sympathy for Parisians. “We supposed care about Paris?! We can care about more than one thing at a time!” For one, of course we’re supposed to care about Paris, so long as we also care about other cities devastated by terrorism. Two, that’s the whole point: we don’t actually care about multiple things at one time, but we should. We should care just as much about everyone affected by terrorism. And we should prioritize those who suffer the most from terrorism, which happens to be Muslim, Middle Eastern, North African, and some Southeast Asian folx – not white people.

Third, this double standard excuses western nations from taking responsibility for their contributing rolls in the rise of international terrorist organizations. The U.S. is not the only western nation who has contributed financially, politically, and militarily to international terrorism. However, I’m going to use the U.S. as an example. The U.S. funded the mujahideen (who were groups of religious extremist guerrilla fighters) in Afghanistan to fight our proxy war with Soviet Russia in the 1970s, because OMG! Communism! The war devastated Afghanistan’s infrastructure and political system, leaving the country unstable and vulnerable to violent authoritarianism. Infighting broke out between the different factions of the mujahideen. No longer financially backed by the United States, some of them sought refuge in religious fundamentalist schools in Saudi Arabia. The Taliban was born from these fundamentalist. The Taliban proceeded to destroy Afghanistan’s social and political structures, terrorize the Afghan people, and rule the country with an iron fist. By the late 1990s, the brutality of the Taliban had reached nearly all of Afghanistan. Afghan folx were certainly experiencing terrorism (and still do), but the west called this terrorism a civil war. There responsibility for Afghanistan’s perilous situation was thus removed from the shoulders of the west and places squarely on Afghanistan as a country (and their people), even though the State of Afghanistan didn’t start the proxy war with the Soviets. But because we don’t call it terrorism, but a “civil war,” we [the west] can remove ourselves from our role in this terrorism.

Finally, this double standard paints certain forms of terrorism, especially state-sanctioned domestic terrorism, as another form of  violence or mere tragedy. When we only acknowledge acts of terrorism as terrorism if they are committed in a western country by non-western groups, we erase the experiences of those victimized by less stereotypical terrorism. For instance: given that so many Black Americans (and other people of colour, espcially Native Americans) are killed by police under suspicious or outright brutal circumstances, what do you think people of colour in the U.S. feel every time they must interact with law enforcement? Terror? This is definitely a type of terrorism; it’s state-sanctioned terrorization of a particular group of people. Or what about trans and gender non-conforming folx? Over 20 trans women alone were murdered in the U.S. so far in 2015 (Kellaway and Brydum 2015). According to Trans Murder Monitoring Project reports, a trans person is murdered approximately every 3 days worldwide (Balzer 2009). Additionally, trans and gender non-conforming people face threats of abuse and harassment daily. Too many socially and politically marginalized folx have to live in fear of harm or death. If that’s not terrorism, I don’t know what is.

These one-sided reactions to terrorism and double standards in the way we [westerners] conceptualize terrorism have real world consequences. Namely, those most regularly and severely affected by terrorism go largely unnoticed by the powerful west, which allows the terrorism committed against them to continue. Terrorism and violence are always horrible no matter who it happens to, but westerns do have the privilege of sympathy, international support, and the recognition of being ‘real’ victims of terrorism.

Sources:

Ahmed, Beenish, “Syrian Refugee Puts Paris Attacks Into Perspective In One Simple Sentence,” ThinkProgress, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/world/2015/11/15/3722379/paris-refugees/

Balzer, Carson, 2009, http://www.liminalis.de/2009_03/TMM/tmm-englisch/Liminalis-2009-TMM-report2008-2009-en.pdf.

Brumfield, Ben, Tim Lister and Nick Paton Walsh, “French jets bomb ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria; few may have been killed,” CNN, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/16/middleeast/france-raqqa-airstrikes-on-isis/.

Kellaway, Mitch and Sunnivie Brydum, “These Are the U.S. Trans Women Killed in 2015,”  Advocate, 2015, http://www.advocate.com/transgender/2015/07/27/these-are-trans-women-killed-so-far-us-2015.

“Kenya attack: 147 dead in Garissa University assault,” BBC, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-32169080.

Wellman, Nathan, “One Day Before Paris, There Was a Massive Terrorist Attack the Media Ignored,” US Uncut, 2015, http://usuncut.com/world/beirut-this-terrorist-attack-didnt-get-any-media/.

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