The moment the City of Light turned dark, the world lit up.
An explosion of blue, white, and red—the colors of the French flag—filled Snapchat stories and covered Facebook walls. Monuments such as the Empire State Building and Sydney Opera House illuminated as national leaders expressed sympathy and support. The event’s Twitter hashtag, #PrayforParis, shot to the top of the worldwide trending list and accompanied over six million Instagram posts.
On the night of November 13, three teams of armed Islamic State attackers simultaneously began shooting innocent civilians in Paris, France, while multiple bombs detonated. The death of at least 129 civilians and the injuring of 352 more in only three hours engendered outrage, grief, disbelief, and support.
The world’s response was immediate. The New York Times took to social media with minute-by-minute updates as the disasters rolled out, and other major news sources, such as CNN and the Huffington Post, followed suit. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, announced the activation of the Safety Check to allow Parisians to confirm their safety on the website or app—a feature that had previously only been used for natural disasters. Social media was flooded with messages of support and unity.
Nevertheless, when only one day earlier, a double suicide attack in Beirut, Lebanon killed over 43 and injured 200, the event went largely ignored, hardly discussed or known until the coverage of the attacks in Paris. When bombs went off in Baghdad that Friday, with a death toll of 26 and with over 40 wounded, the world remained quiet again. A bomb planted by ISIS remains a likely cause of a Russian aircraft’s crash in Sinai, Egypt, which killed 224 on October 31; yet, the event was seldom heard in conversations or Twitter hashtags.
“Across the world, in the United States, American flags are at half staff in solidarity with our French allies,” President Barack Obama stated at a Group of 20 Summit meeting in Turkey, three days after the attacks in Paris. Absent from his speech were any mentions of the other attacks by ISIS from around the same time. Were these attacks any less devastating and heartbreaking? Were the deaths any less poignant? If not, then why weren’t they mentioned? Why did we remain so silent about them until they became relevant in the shadow of Paris? These attacks occurred under equally terrible circumstances, initiated by
the same terrible people, but they didn’t garner the attention of the globe. The people of Baghdad and Beirut weren’t greeted with outpourings of love and support or mollified with Facebook Safety Checks, and the French flag remains the only picture filter option on Facebook.
A reason for this imbalance may stem from the United States’s long-time friendship with France, its oldest ally. In one year, 1.6 million Americans visit Paris, while a total of 1.3 million globally visit the entire country of Lebanon. The colors and symbols of Paris shine bright in Americans’ minds, while many cannot even pinpoint Lebanon or Baghdad on a map. Associated with the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and as the ‘birthplace’ of ISIS, the Middle East has gained a reputation of violence in the minds of the West that has made these disastrous events almost expected, while any death in the “civilized” Western world is an immediate atrocity.
A gap in empathy stems from the gap in cultural exposure and understanding, and seems to indicate that, to much of the world, brown lives simply matter less. In countries such as Syria, at certain times, 129 deaths per day is not a rare occurrence. In the past year, attacks have killed hundreds in Tunisia, Kuwait, Somalia, Turkey, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and more—but in comparison to the response to Paris, how much of the world notices? Without caring for these human lives, we demonstrate how desensitized we have become, and how little empathy we have for people of unfamiliar cultures.
“Say a prayer for Paris by all means, but pray more, for the world that does not have a prayer/for those who no longer have a home to defend,” wrote an Indian blogger in an Instagram post that has been shared thousands of times. “For a world that is falling apart in all corners, and not simply in the towers and cafes we find so familiar.”
We should not be selective in our solidarity. The loss of human life is tragic no matter where in the world the death occurs—whether in Paris or in Baghdad, a life is a life and a person is a person, each leaving behind equally devastating backstories and devastated family members. By putting so much focus on the Western world and ignoring the deaths of the Middle East, more value is put in the lives of those of the Western world, dismissing the others as less important or even disposable. Our support shouldn’t be limited or conditional; pray for Baghdad and Beirut as you #PrayforParis; sing red, white, brown, and green as you sing blue, white, and red. Don’t light up solely for the City of Light—light up for the world.