Unless you’ve been living under a rock, surely you know about the terrible synchronised terror attacks on Paris last week. And unless you’ve been totally off social media (in which case how did you find this blog?), you would know about the more ad hominem attacks – people accusing Paris sympathizers of not being aware of other tragic incidents happening around the world – in particular, the fact that the day before the Paris attacks, Beirut was victim to several bomb attacks. This, according to the couch critics, went unnoticed by the mass Western media, therefore reinforcing the concept that Western countries take priority over non-Western countries. Therefore, the media has chosen to highlight a Western country’s problems over that of the multitude of day-to-day bombings and attacks endured by many countries, especially in the Middle East and Africa.
However, as some have pointed out, mass media did cover the Beirut twin suicide bombings; news agencies from the BBC to CNN devoted significant coverage to the event. Instead, Max Fisher from Vox suggests that it was not that the media neglected the news about Beirut – it was that it slid under the radar of readers; the news clip passed by unnoticed, simply another soundbite in the deluge of information that we are immersed in day-in, day-out.
I don’t want to devote my blogpost to finger-pointing. I think we’ve had quite enough of it the past few days; and it seems so trivial to be quibbling about little things like Facebook’s profile picture colour filters, when people have died – when people are constantly dying, in painful and tragic ways. The weight of their suffering, of the tragedies, makes our own little squabbles on social media so insignificant.
Instead, I just want to raise a little point – a tiny idea in the swathe of articles and social media posts about the recent terror attacks in Paris. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, our immediate reaction is to sympathise. To grieve – even though we may never have visited the country. To turn on the news and grasp for any small new item of information that may emerge. But news of a bomb in Beirut; or ISIS raiding a small town in Syria – such news often slides by unnoticed. At best we read about it, click x and move on with the next news item of the day. Why? Why the discrepancy?
I believe (at least, this is my humble opinion; feel free to disagree or to raise any other points you might feel are relevant) that a large part of this boils down to the continuing dichotomy between West and East; the persistent conception of West as modernity and East as antiquity; West as civilization and East as uncivilized barbarism. And who we identify with.
Perhaps I’ve been studying too much postcolonial theory in the past year, but I think as a whole, we still tend to equate the West with modern civilization, and the East (especially the Middle East and Africa), with backward waters. Therefore even though I (and much of my social media feed) derives from what is typically called East; I would say that we are very much part of what considers itself the ‘civilised’ East – Singapore, Japan – countries who rank high in development surveys and where income levels are high. We identify ourselves with the West; like a banana, yellow on the outside but white on the inside. We consider ourselves modern, civilised beings. We travel. We eat cheese, and croissants, and macarons and drink wine and all the fruits of globalisation and international trade. The West – is not of us, and yet at the same time, it is very much an integral part of us, because it defines who we are – our identity as modern individuals.
So then, when Paris gets attacked. Or a cafe in Sydney is taken over by a man with a gun. Or London trains are bombed. Or the World Trade Centre in New York is attacked. We feel as if a part of ourself is attacked too. If it can happen to a modern city like Paris, certainly it can happen to us. President Obama called the Paris attacks an attack on all of humanity. But I think in our minds, the alarm bells only go off when the attack falls on something we identify with. The attacks on Paris, in our minds, were an attack on modern civilisation. An attack on the modern man, living in the city – me. To engage in such attacks is to be uncivilised, is to be barbaric – is to be the East – is to be other, is to be the outsider.
What then of Beirut? Why does Beirut pass under the radar unnoticed? Why were the Beirut twin suicide bombings not ‘an attack on all humanity’? Because Lebanon, as part of the Middle East, is where such ‘barbaric’ things happen. We have become desensitised to the news of violence happening in the Middle East and Africa. We have come to associate these two regions (well, one is an entire continent) with violence, poverty, and tragedy. News of violence, poverty, and tragedy, then, does not raise eyebrows. It is simply, in our minds, an inherent part of the East. Bomb attacks are a natural part of being in the East. This is something that doesn’t happen to us – it happens to them.
But in the West? Violence, poverty and tragedy do not belong in the realm of modern civilisation. Because we live there. In modern civilisation. And if violence, tragedy and poverty become a part of this modern civilisation, it affects us. Not only that; it negates our identity as ‘civilised’ individuals; negates our society’s identity as a ‘civilisation’. Hence when these things happen, our first reaction is to seek for the ‘other’ in the perpetrators. The ‘unmodern’ and the ‘barbaric’ – whether it be their religion, their race, their economic background, their mental illness, and so on. And when we can find that ‘other’, the part that is not a part of our identity, we breathe a sigh of relief. Good. It happened because it wasn’t part of us. And so the dichotomy between West and East persists. And so, we send fighter jets to rain bombs upon Syria.
It bothers me, that in the face of tragedy, our instinct is to look for the ‘other’, to antagonise, to emphasise the schism between us and them. If this is an attack on all of humanity, then what about the French bombing Syria? Is that not also an attack on humanity, on the humans living in Syria? Humanity is so complex. Motivations are complex, and as many have pointed out, the roots of the bombers’ motivations may lie in history that extends centuries back – and yes, much of it to do with the West and their actions in the Middle East. We are the culmination of millenia of existence, as an entire race, coexisting and interacting with one another across vast lands and seas. Isn’t that amazing? Yet we persist with a black and white dichotomy, two realms constructed vastly divested from each other. For we can only perceive ourself when we perceive who we are not. So we continue to seek for the other – in that which cannot be other.
All I wanted to say was that our attention tends to be drawn to news about attacks on Western countries because it feels unnatural, alien to our conception of what is West. We grieve with attacks on Western countries because we identify ourselves with our modern Western counterparts, as a part of modern civilisation. We tend to overlook attacks in non-Western countries because we do not identify with them as much; and because we identify them as barbaric, violent and uncivilised countries, such barbaric, violent and uncivilised crimes are the norm over there. But to persist in such a dichotomy feels wrong to me. As long as we remain surprised that Syrians have iPhones, as long as we conceive of Afghan refugees as potential terrorists, as long as we see them as not a part of us – we are not including them in our understanding of humanity. And that is so cruel and cold as to be barbaric, violent, uncivilised – and tragic.
Let me know your thoughts on this, but let’s keep it civil – out of respect for the tragedy that has happened. This is not an ad hominem attack on anybody. Just an outpouring of my thoughts, and sadness at the wreck of human civilisation we have come to today.