Thursday, November 26, 2015

The less we know, the easier it is to hate ...

The less we know about each other, the easier it is to hate. And did you ever get the impression that, for all our technological advances over the past few decades, we live in increasingly intolerant times?

Last week, it seemed that a third of the people I knew on Facebook turned their profile photos blue, white, and red in sympathy with the victims of the terrible terrorist atrocities in Paris the previous weekend.

Of course they had every right to do so, they were horrified by the images they'd seen on their TV screens.

But why sympathise with victims in one place, and not another? Those who wondered why Sky News don’t broadcast 24/7 from bombed out cities and towns in Syria, Palestine, or Afghanistan were told that people have a right to sympathise with terrorism victims in Paris, simply because they live closer to us.

US troops in Shannon: How many of us ever ask what destruction they cause?
And it’s true. The Irish do have more connections with the French than we do with people in Palestine, Iraq, or Syria. But we do the people in those countries a great disservice by airbrushing them out of our lives, when our own governments in the West play a big part in their troubles.

We let airplanes fly through our airports on their way to bomb them, we sell arms to despotic tyrants who abuse them, we turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, and then we wonder why some of them have an irrational hatred for people in our part of the world.

We didn’t see Sky News outside the Afghan hospital bombed by the US last month, but the channel spent an entire week broadcasting from Paris, interviewing victims, who had gruesome stories to tell about how a night out at a rock concert, a football match, or a restaurant turned into a nightmare in which 130 innocent people lost their lives.

Significant elements of the media make it clear that some lives are more important than others. Whether due to geography, inconvenience, or simple editorial policy, Sky never showed us interviews with the victims of the Beirut terror attacks which claimed 43 lives just 24 hours before the Paris attacks.

A suburban neighbourhood full of ordinary people became a "Hezbollah stronghold".

A few weeks earlier it was “politically inconvenient” to dwell on the bombing, by US forces, of the Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) hospital which claimed 30 lives. It wasn’t an act of terror, it was “human error” we were told. And it doesn’t rest easily with our narrative about who the good and the bad guys are.

So the victims of bombings in Afghanistan or Beirut never make it onto our TV screens and we don’t play their national anthems to honour their dead at our football games.

We say it “could have been us” when we talk about Paris or London, but never consider that ordinary people in far more troubled places are also trying to just get on with their lives.

Perhaps some of the refugees fleeing Syria are ISIS terrorists, hell-bent on causing havoc across Europe. But the vast majority are ordinary people who are escaping horrible lives in war zones. No father or mother puts a toddler into an unsafe boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea unless they are fleeing genuine horror.

Selective viewing renders a joke of objectivity. When 2,200 people were murdered in Gaza last summer, it was hard to find a reporter in the UK or Ireland – apart from Jon Snow on Channel 4 and a few others – who was willing to travel to the enclave and gather heart-breaking stories from the survivors.

So we didn’t get exposed to their grief, in the same way as we’ve been horrified by the loss of so many innocent lives in Paris.

It’s been horrible to go on social media in recent months and to see all the Islamophobic bile being spread about the thousands of refugees who are seeking new lives in Europe as an escape from the war-torn Middle East.

We didn't hear about the French air raids on Syrian towns back in September and few make a connection between European intervention in that strife-torn region and the terrorism on our own doorstep. But how could they not be related?

So the people who set off suicide bombs in Paris are a threat to civilisation, but the people who drop bombs on Syria and Iraq with no risk to their own personal safety are hardly ever highlighted by the media.

They don't strap on suicide vests outside crowded theatres, they press a button well out of reach of their victims.

Since 9/11, Muslims are blamed for the misdeeds of a tiny minority of extremists in a way which would have been absurd if the same criteria were applied to the Irish during the IRA bombings in the UK in the 1970s.

Not all Muslims are terrorists, but you’d never think that if you read through the comments on some social media sites. I’ve seen people call on their Governments to “nuke the bastards” as though wiping out the entire population of some cities or regions would eliminate the threat posed by terrorists, instead of creating a whole new generation of jihadists.

It is in the interests of the extremists on both sides that ignorance should prevail.

And it takes some degree of ignorance and extremism to believe that a place in paradise awaits those who shoot young rock fans in a crowded theatre on a Friday night.

When we go to Egypt, Morocco, Jordon or Tunisia on holidays, we get to enjoy fun times with ordinary, decent Muslims. The interactions work both ways – they get jobs in the tourism industry and to see that not all Westerners are as decadent or arrogant as they’ve been portrayed in their own biased media.

When we stop travelling – which is understandable in the wake of suicide bombings – our Governments can stoke up hatred against the Muslim world and continue to justify the sale of arms to regimes which have no regard for human rights.

We have seen this type of ignorance in Ireland for too long. When Catholics and Protestants attend different schools, play different games, support different sports teams, and even work in different places, it’s too easy to build up an irrational hatred for each other.

But it’s also in the Catholic Church’s own interest to keep children of different faiths apart from the moment they attend school.

Technology has changed our lives so much in recent years. We can now record or watch the news on our mobile phones 24/7. We can be connected no matter where we are, day or night.

But if we continue to put barriers between ourselves and ‘other’ civilisations we continue to be as ignorant about each other as Muslims and Christians were a thousand years ago, during the Crusades.

When our media only highlight terrible loss of life in Paris, New York, or London, rather than atrocities which take place around the world with far more regularity, they add to the false perception that there is some sort of Holy War going on between “us” and “them”.
Protesting against US troops in Shannon

Most people, whether they live in Paris or Beirut, only want peaceful, happy lives. But you’d never think that innocent lives in Beirut matter much if you relied on the likes of Sky News for your information about what’s happening in the world.

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