By Emma Stelter '16
This happened to me twice. One day last January I walked out of the Hôtel Citadines on the left bank in Paris. I saw the news headline on the flat screen TV in the lobby. I read the words “attentat terroriste.” It didn’t register. I walked to the Metro and rode to the Tuileries stop, with every intention of going to the Musée d’Orsay, where our guide, Lucille, was giving a tour. When I checked my phone for the time, I saw an email from our program director, written in English, asking us all to check in with her as soon as possible. I texted my parents that I was OK, and returned to the hotel.
On Friday, November 13, I checked Facebook before getting on the 5:00 Exchange Bus. I saw the news headline. It didn’t register. On the bus, I closed my eyes and put in my headphones—I get motion sick easily. I sat through stop-and-go traffic, took an exceptionally long T-ride, and walked for twenty minutes to an event at the residence of the French Consul in Boston—to which I was disastrously late—and consequently missed the minute of silence. It wasn’t until I was heading back to Harvard Square that I saw a text from my dad: “Terrorist attack in Paris. Over 100 dead.” It registered.
I am desensitized to stories about violence in the media. That much is obvious. News stories appear in my Facebook feed, and for me there’s an absence of feeling. Maybe it’s fueled by denial; maybe it’s some kind of twisted self-preservation. It’s easy to post solidarity messages after the fact, but the bottom line is, I can look at a headline and not register its significance for hours—until someone I know personally tells me. Even if I’m in the same city, three arrondissements over.
In news commentaries looking back on the events of this last week—in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad—there’s a phrase I keep reading over and over: selective solidarity. The world selected Paris and neglected Baghdad and Beirut. Social media became a sea of tricolor flags and Eiffel Towers, with symbols of Lebanon and Iraq nowhere to be seen. Photos of the American flag flown in Paris after 9/11 were paired with photos of New York City lit up in blue, white, and red. Selective solidarity. “It’s not just Paris.” It’s hard not to feel the current of anger in those words. For me, it’s hard to read them and feel anything more than exhaustion.
Make no mistake: the media has a problem with unequal coverage. It is a problem that news organizations disproportionately report on violence in the western world while ignoring tragedy elsewhere. It is a problem that France’s tragedy has been talked about more these last few days than Lebanon’s, Iraq’s. It is a problem that Paris got a safe check-in option from Facebook and Beirut did not. There is a problem with the narrative that normalizes and desensitizes us to violence in places in conflict without giving them fuller representation. But there also needs to be a way to approach the problem in times like these that does not invalidate our grief.
There are—and this is truly terrible—so many acts of mass violence in this world, that I sometimes wonder if I do need to be selective about what I mourn about. Just as I am unwilling to allow France’s tragedy to overshadow my critical thinking, I am incapable of weeping for every bystander murdered, every crowded square bombed. I would cease to function. I would cease to be of use. I hear about a suicide bombing, a mass shooting. These are terrible events. But when they happen, I read the news headlines. And then I keep moving.
I believe in expressing solidarity for the world and confronting the problem of unequal coverage. I believe that we as individuals are responsible for being active and critical consumers of media. But I have little sympathy for those angered by messages of solidarity for France. No, it isn’t just Paris. It’s Beirut. It’s Baghdad. But mourning for those killed in Paris and talking about western-centric reporting should not be mutually exclusive. In these next few days, weeks, months, I hope we will think about the fact that everyone who has spoken up about these tragedies—whether their Facebook picture sports a tricolor filter, whether they’ve made donations to the Red Cross, whether they’ve spoken in solidarity for those suffering in Beirut or Baghdad—has felt the weight of these events, and felt the need to at least say something about them. Let’s not forget: these expressions of solidarity are neither misplaced nor ill-intended. Our support for any one place should not have to tear down our support for any other. Let’s listen to each other and talk about the problems. Let’s acknowledge the suffering that has taken place and continues to take place.
But let us not belittle each other’s grief. We are better than that.
From November 2015 Issue