Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why are we so selective in our grief?

Unlike many of my Facebook friends, I didn’t change my profile photo this week. I got home after a Saturday afternoon in town to find that a host of people had adopted the blue, white, and red tricolour after being prompted to do so by Facebook itself.

It’s not that I don’t care. France was the first country I visited outside the island of Ireland as a teenager in the 1980s. A summer holiday on the west coast opened up a whole new world of possibilities for a youngster who had never been outside of Ireland until he was 14. 

I like France. My brother is fluent in the language and once lived in Paris. My cousin married a wonderful Frenchwoman. I’ve had fantastic holidays scuba diving off the coast of Hyeres, partied and enjoyed rugby games in Toulouse, and enjoyed city breaks in Lyon, Paris, and Marseille.

The terrorist attacks in Paris were horrific and the reaction completely understandable. 

I have been teaching English part-time as I build up a freelance journalism and content writing business and one of my students missed class on Monday and Tuesday because his mother lived near the scene of one of the attacks. He had been sick with worry all weekend.

But seeing all these flags as I flicked through my timeline made me feel uncomfortable. 

I wondered why so many of my Irish friends were expressing public sympathy with the French victims of terror when so many horrible events happen every week without any reaction on our shores.

I didn’t see any Lebanese flags on my timeline after 43 people in Beirut were blown up by the same horrible ISIS terrorists just 24 hours before the French attacks.

I didn’t see any Russian flags when so many people were blown up over the Sinai desert the previous weekend.

I’m probably unusual for an Irish person in that I’ve been to the Sinai at least a dozen times, thanks to my love of scuba diving. I’ve become good friends with Egyptians, Bedouins, and British people thanks to all my travels, which proves that travel broadens the mind.

People I know are hurting right now because people are afraid to visit Egypt, understandably, any more. Their businesses are suffering and they could yet close down if people from Europe stop flying to the Muslim world.

Understandably, the tourism industry in Tunisia disintegrated after the shocking gun attack on tourists on a beach a few months ago. People want to relax on holidays, not to be in fear for their lives.  

But this separation of the world into "us" and "them" is part of the problem.

If people don’t travel, we don’t get to meet ordinary Muslims. We don’t break down barriers. And they lose their jobs in countries which don’t have any social welfare systems, playing into the hands of the extremists who want them to hate the decadent western world.

It’s easier to hate people when you never meet them, as I found out during a gap year in Nicaragua in 2010 when I was astounded by the amount of American expats who had an irrational hatred of Muslims.

43 people were blown up in Beirut on Thursday and nobody mentions it on Facebook. It got a five minute mention on BBC or Sky News.

A sad dog in Paris, considered more newsworthy than a dead child in Palestine 
A MSF hospital was bombed by the U.S. three weeks ago and we didn’t see interviews with the survivors on our news.

Almost 130 people were killed in Paris on Friday night. They were ordinary, innocent people enjoying a night out, at a rock concert, a restaurant, or a football match. Yes, it's horrible. But suddenly BBC and Sky News were broadcasting for 48 hours non-stop from the crime scenes and people changed their profile photos.

If Kay Burley and Sky News broadcast 48 hours non-stop from Gaza last summer maybe they might have influenced public opinion and stopped the murder of 2,100 people, including 550 children.

But that’s the problem. Sky News don’t focus on all the hardship the people of Gaza, effectively trapped in an open air prison, have had to endure over the years. 

Kay Burley brought journalism to a new low this week when she tweeted a photo of a dog looking sad in Paris. She was rightly ridiculed.

The Daily Mail used the Paris attacks for their own right-wing agenda, likening migrants fleeing the war in Syria to rats just as the same paper demonised the Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

News channels spend a full week broadcasting 24/7 from Paris so we are bound to have more sympathy with the victims. They treat a bombing in Beirut as a ‘non-story’ and move on as though nothing has occurred. We don’t care because we don’t see the victims on our TV screens.

If the wide world could witness the huge injustice being suffered by the people of Palestine, perhaps their lives could change for the better and they would feel less of a grievance against those of us lucky enough to be born in Western Europe.

We didn't see their families or the survivors being interviewed constantly over a 24 hour period on Sky or BBC last year. It’s easy to label them as “terrorists” when we never see them, even though 1.8 million people – many refugees from what is now Israel – have been living in deplorable conditions for years.

ISIS are depraved fundamentalists, but they are not fools. They see that killing people in France generates ten times more publicity than a bomb in Beirut.

Meeting ordinary people in the Middle East challenged my own preconceptions built up through the Western media.

By being so selective in our grief we play into the hands of the extremists and the cynical people in the West who sell them arms.

Wasn’t it George Orwell who wrote that some lives were more important than others? Well, the media in Europe and America make that abundantly clear every day.

The ignorance about Muslims in America and now Europe is alarming. The more we divide up the world into important (Paris, New York, London) and unimportant (Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq) victims, the worse the division becomes.

ISIS are scum and that doesn't mean I disrespect the grief French people have been going through over the past week.

By all means mourn the terrible loss of life in Paris.

But let's not be so selective about our grief. The loss of any innocent life is a tragedy, whether it's in Paris, Beirut, Gaza, Sharm, or London.

We are all human. It might be easier to relate to a tragedy in Paris, simply because we’ve been there, but that should not prevent us from learning about gross injustices in other parts of the world.

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