The Politics of Empathy and Grief: Comparing Loss in Paris and the Middle East/Africa

By now, it should come as no surprise that a terrorist attack occurred in Paris this past friday; several hundred people were killed and many more were wounded in coordinated efforts across the City of Light through bombings and shootings; the attacks were claimed to have been planned and conducted by members of ISIS.

During and following the attacks, the world stopped and noticed; while the Eiffel Tower stood dark, countless memorials and landmarks across the world were washed in the color of the Tricolore; one example of the this memorial was the lighting of the White House in Washington DC and here the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Facebook activated a tool that allowed family members from France and across the globe to see if people in Paris could report in as okay and Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms allowed filters so that profile pictures could show "solidarity" with the French people following the heinous attacks.

Despite the attention granted to France in her time of need, it appears that the West cannot extend the same compassion, empathy, and feelings of grief to others around the globe. There has been very little global media coverage of attacks in Lebanon (43 dead in a suicide bombing in the capital city of Beirut) and Iraq (26 dead in a bombing in Baghdad). One commentator from the media website The Daily Beast cites a report from the United Nations that attributes 24,015 deaths in the first eight months of 2014 in Iraq due to sectarian violence carried out by battles between ISIS, rebel groups, and governmental forces in that country alone.

The people of Lebanon and Iraq get no flag filters and social media tools like those extended to the victims of Paris. They get no calls for solidarity; persons who are fleeing the violence inflicted by ISIS in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries have become the pariahs that the Jews were during the years before WWII gripped the world: they are turned away from our gates due to hollow concerns pertaining to safety and religious difference. We are told that it is impossible to differentiate between terrorists and innocents and that we should be more concerned about assimilation and immigration, rather than focusing on the root causes of why these people feel compelled to leave their homes behind only to be told that there is no home for them here.

It is apparent that there is a politics of empathy and grief in the West; empathy and related emotions have fallen victim to Orientalism that refuses to acknowledge the dignity, respect, and worth of the persons slaughtered on an all fronts. Rather than viewing refugees as persons desperately needing assistance, politicians and the public alike inflate refugees with the terrorists that they are fleeing.

The tides of Islamophobia and nativism continue to swell and engulf the earth while we ignore voices from the Middle East and around the world that rightfully point out that Muslims are being killed by those who seek to impose Wahabbism on the world; when did it become correct to associate fanatics obsessed with bringing the apocalypse with dead women and children? Why are broken and bloody bodies of the Middle East and Africa considered acceptable norms and Western bodies considered to be unacceptable?

As I reflect on the losses of human life, it becomes apparent that many people are blinded by their cultural upbringings. There is no easy way to simplify the rich and complex history shared between France and the United States; however, it is quite easy to decry systems of colonialism and oppression that have enslaved and murdered other human beings for economic gain.

It seems that America is the only place where legitimate concerns over racism and bigotry on college campuses and in public life are not considered "legitimate" forms of violence, but where a controversy over a lack of imagery on cups from a capitalist economic juggernaut is considered a legitimate grievance. The hypocrisy is beyond staggering and further illustrates the racial and ethnic divides that have been and continue to be the status quo of international, national, and communal relationships.

In the book of Genesis, the author(s) tell us that God "created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them...God saw all that He had made, and found it very good" (Gen 1.27-31; NJPS); our contemporary responses to violence committed by others reflects just how far humans have grown detached from not only each other, but to the Creator. When we begin to politicize and treat certain bodies with preference, we insult and sin against the Creator. Our adherence to systems that treat human beings as capital and collateral reject the image of the Creator and the divine spirit that is imbued in all of us at birth.

Some people have said they are experiencing fatigues of compassion towards the victims of violence. I have grown tired of people who continue to support Western neo-colonial empires that see no issue with destroying our brothers and sisters in the pursuit of worshiping the myths of wealth and power.

Loss is human loss in all its forms; loss in the face of unrequited empathy and grief betray the very impulses that govern our lives. Grieve for Paris, but also grieve for our brothers and sisters who have been broken to provide the privileged world that we live in now.

There are times to pray for divine intercession; now is not one of those times. Now is the time to heed the words of St. Teresa of Ávila:

"Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now."