An attempt to reason through our indifference.
Not for the first time, some have grown frustrated that there’s been no visible outpouring of grief, anger, or solidarity with the victims of Middle East violence, this past week’s ISIS bombings in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Medina.
What the hell, people? go those appalled by the indifference. Do brown lives not matter?
Something like that. I suspect that we’re actually less uncompassionate and racist than we might suppose. To be sure–and of course this is anecdotal evidence–I don’t think I’ve had a single friend who shared such a post who wasn’t also of Middle Eastern descent. For them, it’s obviously close to home for them–and that’s what, I read one internet commenter say, makes Paris a big deal and things like Baghdad a “meh.”
To be fair, Paris was a big deal, with ISIS striking far outside its territory. Baghdad, on the other hand, has at various times been well within its reach and its goals; Istanbul didn’t have the scale or casualties; and Medina happened within the last 24 hours.
But never mind all that–what are we thinking when we get this news?
Let’s start with Iraq. I suspect the first reaction among Westerners, particularly Americans, is there goes Baghdad again, getting bombed–never mind that this is the among the worst bombings, with 200 dead, that the country has suffered. In the case of Iraq, it appears to be business as usual, even if it isn’t, and we can’t be bothered to change our profile pic (assuming that does anything). The lack of solidarity in this case is especially unfortunate considering, depending on your political preference, America had a hand in Iraq’s current predicament by invading (2003) or by pulling out (2011).
Then there’s Istanbul. Do people know where that is? Seriously, though? Would it help to mention Constantinople? Do they understand the differences between Turkey and its neighbors, and how close it is with (or even included in) the West? Along with the relatively minor scale of the attack (though large for an airport), I think ignorance is more to blame than outright racism.
I suspect the reaction to Medina might end up similar, or it might spark a debate on what’s going on in Islam for ISIS to attack so close to one of the holiest of sites. But moreover, I think we can blame ignorance again. Mecca is more well-known because of its rank among sites and as an idiom, but I have a feeling the reaction here is, What’s a Medina? Even I can’t remember what’s important about Medina, and I got 100% on the Islam exam in the 7th grade. (People asked me right after if I was Muslim. Just saying: you do not need to convert to a religion to make a good faith effort to understand it.)
And I even forgot the attack in Bangladesh. Sorry Bangladesh, but again, most people are probably asking, What’s a Bangladesh?
We get desensitized to suffering in these cases because of ignorance and repetition. We don’t understand the context in which violence is taking place. We hear about the same horrific acts happening in the same places, or within close proximity. In the history of India (as a subcontinent) I’m reading, I cannot count the number of times a famine has occurred in Bengal/Bangladesh, each time leaving between hundreds of thousands and millions dead. In a volume that needs to cover 5,000 years in a reasonable span, such lives appear insignificant, almost helpless. Oh Bengal, there you go again with the famines…
We know terrible things are happening. We know ISIS is committing genocide and keeping sex slaves. But none of this feels real enough because we haven’t watched Hotel Rwanda lately or a documentary on what’s happened in Congo or seen actual photos or footage. I read what must be the most depressing article of the year, about Syrian refugee children attempting suicide in droves. That made the Syrian conflict real again, made the refugee crisis serious rather than a political talking point.
The more cynical aspect of our indifference, I think, is that we don’t feel in danger. How many of us have been to Paris or plan to do so? Isn’t France supposed to be safe like the U.S.? Who among us is going to Baghdad? (I would prefer it to Paris, actually, given a better situation. I get strange looks when I say this but again, people don’t seem to be aware that Baghdad must be 1,000 years richer in history than Paris.)
But if ISIS and the refugee crisis have shown us anything, it’s if they can hurt people there, they can hurt people here. So it’s not rational to ignore the events out of some misplaced sense of security.
Moreover, it’s not that we don’t care because it doesn’t affect us. If that were the case, we would have been unmoved by the Holocaust. Similar suffering is taking place overseas, but we don’t understand it well enough to care.
We’re not heartless. We’re just stupid.