Paris Terrorist Attacks: What We Learned About Ourselves

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In times of unspeakable tragedy, the world always finds itself growing closer.

The last several days have demonstrated that. After the worst attack on French soil since World War II, the world has flocked en masse to the side of France. As facts continue to surface, they do nothing to justify the sheer depravity. Friends were lost, family was lost, and lives were lost. Such unfathomable inhumanity has only been offset by the global reaction to come together in strong opposition to the strong-arm tactics of religious radicalism.

Unfortunately, even as the tragedy in Paris unfolded, the world did not stop spinning to mourn the loss. In fact, the day before Paris, Beirut experienced the deadliest suicide bombing since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990. As the country conducts investigations and arrests, Lebanon too remains resilient against the backdrop of bloodshed and tears. Meanwhile, in Iraq, a suicide bomber attacked an organized funeral killing scores of innocent attendees. This senseless violence highlights the transnational nature and symmetrical form of terrorism from Europe to the Middle East.

But, where was the global solidarity?

If you were to briefly peruse social media, you would almost believe that the attacks in Lebanon and Iraq were post-scriptum. As tricolor photos propagated, ubiquitous “Vive la France” flourished, and personal Parisian stories proliferated, anyone might believe that Lebanon and Iraq were insignificant events in comparison. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find much overt, unique support for the Lebanese or Iraqi victims – especially in the same overwhelming degree shown toward the Parisian attacks. More telling was the belated nature of attention bestowed on the attacks in Lebanon and Iraq, which were treated as addendums in the broader reporting on global terrorism. Recognition of the whole is indeed valuable; it is nonetheless startling to see such asymmetric treatment.

So, why has social media quickly answered the rallying cry of Paris while leaving Lebanon and Iraq on the sidelines?

The parsimonious answer is: “that stuff just happens over there a lot more than here.” Although this answer avoids the cerebral heavy-lifting required to tease out a more nuanced answer, it does highlight something very important: the dialectic of “there” versus “here,” and “them” versus “us”. This bifurcation of identity is fundamental to understanding the inundation of support for the French cause and simultaneous unintentional neglect of the Lebanon and Iraq attacks.

At the center of the dialectic is the difference of values, which the West (“us”) assigns itself in contrast to the non-Western (“them”).

Paris stands as not only a representative of France but also the Western value system. Liberté, egalité, fraternité. That is France. When you walk around France, these values are embedded not only in the mentality of the French people, but they are the cornerstones of French institutions. Moreover, these values transcend the French borders to link with other Western countries espousing the same virtues, ideologies and beliefs. They have come to define the Western democratic community. Beyond existential purposes, these values are a binding and cohesive agent against the forces that may try to tear them apart.

Although the Paris terrorist attack was purportedly anti-Western and aimed at undermining Western institutions, Western collectivity proved stronger than ever. More importantly, the attack underscored the fundamentally intrinsic nature binding Western sentiment: the shared sense of community, experience and perspective. This was vividly encapsulated in the deep empathy expressed by many Westerners through shared media, personal stories and unfaltering solidarity. In the Western eye, the French experience is not congruent with that of the British, German, Australian, Canadian, and Western, more generally.

Yet, this shared paradigm stops at the Western frontier. Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere have not been yielded the designation of the Western “us.”

The Lebanese and Iraqi experience does not mesh perfectly with the Western world. Their narratives navigate a history, culture, and ideology far removed from that of their Western counterparts. Not divergent, but distinct. They trace a path independent of the Western values, creating an independent perspective and paradigm. In some ways, the West views Lebanon and Iraq as strangers. Unknown, enigmatic, misunderstood. This “stranger” distance is the nucleus to the recognition disparity. The West understands France as “us” while the West understands Lebanon and Iraq as “strangers” in the global neighborhood.

The differences are purely differences. That is to say: these differences are value-neutral. They simply play the role of determining community associations and shared perspectives, not socio-cultural hierarchies. “Us” is no better than “them,” “here” is no greater than “there.” But perspective and experiences help weave a common socio-cultural collective. Just as friends are determined by common interests and paradigms, cultures, too, follow the same mechanics. A circle will not fit a square, but they both fit the category of shapes.

So how do we facilitate a better comprehension of global terrorism in the aftermath of Paris?

Tragedy is never an opportunity to be divisive and discriminant. In fact, it is time for the opposite: cooperation and consolidation. To understand the dialectic is to overcome the divisions that fissure our socio-cultural perspectives. Paris is Beirut. Beirut is Iraq. Iraq is Paris. In truth, the tragedy of terrorism cannot be segregated: sanctuary zones versus “shoulder shrug” zones. The Nov. 13 Paris attack has demonstrated the commonality that weaves us all together.

It is high time that we cease to filter our understanding of terrorism by either the quality of inhumanity nor the quantity of inhumanity. Terrorism is terrorism. It is a shared reality that dismantles the “us” and “them” dialectic.

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