On Friday evening, tragedy struck Paris by means of ISIS terrorism. News sources have estimated that at least 129 lives were taken in a series of coordinated attacks, including shootings at a concert venue and multiple suicide bombings. The entire world took immediate notice.
International landmarks across the globe, from the Sydney Opera House, to the Tower Bridge in London and the Empire State Building in New York were lit Friday night with red, blue and white lights to express solidarity with France. The news went viral almost instantly on Facebook, which now has over a billion users around the globe. Facebook even installed a French flag overlay for users to edit their profile pictures, similar to the rainbow flag that the social network installed when gay marriage was nationally legalized. Mark Zuckerberg himself utilized this feature to “Support France and the people of Paris.” Facebook also installed a “Safety Check” to mark yourself, friends, or family members abroad in Paris as safe.
One of the reasons why this tragedy sticks out in the media is because Paris is a place that is very similar to many cities in the United States. Culturally, we are not that different than the citizens of Paris, and as President Obama remarked on Friday night, France is our oldest ally. This tragedy also strikes a personal chord because there are members of the Bates community that are currently spending the semester abroad in France. As a community, we identify with the people and place where this tragedy occurred, thus it makes sense that we responded with tremendous empathy and support.
While these responses via social media are considerable acts of kindness and kinship towards those affected by this tragedy, we so easily forget that this is not the first ISIS attack on civilians. Syria, Kenya and Lebanon are just a few countries that have been terrorized by this extremist group. ISIS’ attack on Paris wasn’t even its first major attack of the day. The extremist group set off bombs in Beirut earlier on Friday killing almost 50 people. But it’s clear that the international response to these terrible acts is not equal to the global support France has received in the wake of this horrific incident.
Which raises the question — are we emotionally moved by the incidents in France because they are gross violations of human rights, or because they are gross violations of human rights committed against white westerners?
As a society, we don’t have a great track record of treating all human lives with the same reverence. On January 15 of this year, the UN estimated that 220,000 Syrians have died during the nation’s civil war. Many of the dead were killed by their own government, which allegedly used toxic gas to end civilian lives. These events were not treated with the same attention and respect both in social media and news coverage. Why has there never been a Syrian or Kenyan flag option so that we may virtually stand in solidarity with the lives that have been both threatened and taken?
It makes sense that we, as a community, would feel scared, threatened, and sympathetic in response to these atrocities committed against white westerners, because we are taught to relate to them. This is exactly the type of life that this country is taught to value, and value above every other life. There is no ethical rationalization that could explain how 220,000 Syrian lives could matter less than 129 Parisian lives. The silencing of the deaths and injured lives of peoples of color furthers this nation’s structured ideology of xenophobia and racism, and strengthens our cultural narrative of islamophobia. What happens when we react solely to the Paris tragedy is that we ignore and continue to under-represent the tragedies resulting from human rights violations all around the world.