I live in Paris, and on Friday evening at 10:15pm, I was running late on my way to meet a friend in the 11th arrondissement. We had been communicating by text message and had set a time and location to meet, so was surprised when she called just as I got the metro. She had just seen on the news that there had been a shooting not too far away from where we were going. She didn’t have very much information at the time, and we both assumed that the situation would be under control in the 30-40 minutes it would take me to get there.
Cell service was inconsistent in the metro, but I started getting news. Shots fired in the 10th and the 11th arrondissements. 18 people dead. Gunmen still on the loose, firing indiscriminately into the crowd. Hostage situation at the Bataclan, a popular concert venue and nightclub. I was halfway there when I turned around and went home.
The atmosphere on the train was tense as the information spread. By the time I got back to my neighbourhood in the 15th, far away from the violence, I had already started to receive messages from friends and family. I was sending messages to my people in Paris making sure they were ok. I called my parents as soon as I got above ground. I didn’t even know about the suicide bombers until I got home, where I spent the evening with my boyfriend, a friend of ours, and his girlfriend as we watched the news and tried to get in touch with everyone we knew.
I finally fell asleep in front of the news with tears in my eyes around 4am.
I woke up a few hours later and immediately turned the news back on. My hands and my heart shook as I read about what the hostages went through inside the Bataclan as they waited for police intervention. It was too easy to see it all happen in my mind’s eye – I’ve been there before and know it well. I read about how the gunmen opened fire at diners eating outdoors at one of my favorite restaurants – Le Petit Cambodge. The attackers targeted places where people go out to have fun, places I know and love.
Then I checked Facebook. I saw angry posts directed to those who publicly mourn the loss of life in Paris, calling them hypocrites and worse. I read posts by Americans who made the attacks about immigration in the U.S., or about gun control, or about Mizzou, or about France’s colonial history. These posts ranged from using the attacks to further personal agendas, to perpetrating racism and islamo-/xenophobia, to saying that France deserved what happened. I saw that while many people used and appreciated Facebook’s safety check-in feature that was activated during the attacks, many others had a lot of negative (and justifiable) things to say about it, and about the fact that FB proposed the French flag overlay for profile pictures.
Most particularly, I saw how people are outraged about how the world mourns the loss of white, Western life but ignores the loss of brown and black lives.
To be clear, I am here for that conversation. 100% here for it. It is an extremely important and meaningful conversation to have, especially since the attacks in Paris came in the wake of a bombing in Beirut that killed over 40 people – a terrorist attack also claimed by ISIS that went largely unreported in Western/American media, and was ignored by Facebook. A lot has been said about this – see “Beirut, Also the Site of Deadly Attacks, Feels Forgotten” from the New York Times today for reference – but that isn’t the point I want to make in this article.
I have been vacillating between feeling lost and helpless in the multiplicity of atrocities, and being quite simply taken aback by the people who reacted to the Paris attacks with scorn, dismissal, finger-pointing and accusations. People have also taken to social media en masse to take part in something that I will never understand: grief shaming. This often comes in the form of posts saying “oh so you care about Paris, but not about (insert other situation here)…you must be (insert any mix of negative adjectives here) and I am judging you.”
Sicheng Su, a fellow Stanford alum orginally from Singapore and currently living in Basel, Switzerland eloquently responded to some of these surprising reactions in the Facebook post quoted below:
“Folks, I would suggest that we stop saying we shouldn’t stand with Paris because it ignores other realities, like Beirut or the Gaza Strip or the ongoing war in Syria or Erithrea. Please.
Our preference for identifying with Paris is natural. We are in shock and we mourn what happened in Paris not because we think they are more worth mourning than those in the Gaza Strip, but because we feel a stronger connection with them. We identify with them, whether it’s because we have friends who live there, or because we have been there and would love to go back, or simply because we live in a similarly developed city/country and can understand their general way of life. We relate to them and we feel a sense of loss when they go through loss. In contrast most of us have zero connection to Palestine, or to Erithrea, or to the elephants in Zimbabwe. Those of us who do will identify with them readily, but the rest of us have difficulty empathising, simply because we don’t feel a connection with those people. We don’t know their culture, their way of life.
It’s like that time I was in school and we received news one of my batchmates had passed away. I barely knew her, but I’d seen her around and I knew people who knew her. I spent far more time mourning over her than I did over thousands of strangers in Syria when the civil unrest broke out. And you’d understand that. You’d understand that it would be silly to come to me at that time and say, “why are you mourning over this one event for just one person when there are thousands all over the world dying every day?”
It often goes without saying that there is are invisible lines that divide us; lines that some people say shouldn’t exist but all of us should recognise are there. It is as simple as the line between you and that other guy on the subway, both ignorant of each other and glued to your phones as you text your loved ones; or as deep as the line between developed and developing countries, where both sides have a fairly shallow understanding of the other. The line is defined by our relationships, and by the fact that all of us have more connections with a particular group of people than we do with other groups.
So please stop telling people they shouldn’t be drawing lines, because we all do. The trick isn’t to pray for people we don’t know. The trick is to pray for connections across those lines, in form of friendships, or information flows, or good journalism, for us to understand each other.”
In a blog post titled “How to Politicise a Tragedy” that was re-published by Slate, writer Sam Kriss had this to say:
“Atrocity demands solidarity. Absolute sympathy for the victims; for all victims. To insist on having an opinion, not the knowing sneer of someone who was right all along, but undiminished solidarity in the face of devastation. To fight against those who attack concerts and cafés, those who bomb cities with fighter jets and with their own bodies, those who abandon migrants to the cold outside their borders, and those who sent them fleeing. To struggle: the common struggle of all who suffer, against suffering.”
Finally, Brooklyn based writer George Arnett published a blog post titled “Our Mourning is Broken: Paris and Privilege” in which he notably addressed the hypocrisy of the international media response to Paris vs. other tragedies, but also said:
“I stand with Paris, but I also stand with Syrian refugees whose plight is only worsening due to our shortsightedness and our desire to bundle their lives with the lives of the people from whom they are running, as if anyone blamed German Jews for the Nazi occupation, though they were all German by nationality.
Stand with Paris. But stand for more than that. Stand for the dismantling of regimes and systems which leave people angry and desperate while also funding, arming, and facilitating the terror we claim to hate. Pray for the families of the victims. Send love and light. Honor the dead, but also do more to lift up those who continue to live and suffer through these atrocities while feeling abandoned and ignored.”
These individuals articulated how I’ve been feeling better than I ever could. Now is absolutely NOT the time to come for people in shock and in mourning and tell them that what they feel isn’t legitimate, or enough, or is too much, or that somehow they aren’t doing it right.
Please, for those of us who feel affected by the Paris attacks: let us mourn. We do not mourn in ignorance of other atrocities, and we are not insisting that the loss of life in Paris is more important than the loss of life anywhere else.
I cannot speak for everyone who has posted about the attacks or changed their profile picture using Facebook’s tricolore overlay, but I speak for myself when I say that I changed my profile picture to show solidarity with the French people (not the French government), and I am quite capable of being aware of and actively outraged by events all over the world, historically and currently, while being heartbroken for the city where I live.
These attacks are and will continue to be the catalyst for some incredibly important discussions about selective outrage, international response, and the state of the world today. We need to move forward from here by asking ourselves the right questions and working towards true awareness and understanding. I hope – perhaps over-optimistically – that the international community will take a long, hard look at the policy decisions that led to this moment, and I hope that we will come together to build a better and safer future for humanity. But I promise you that finger-pointing and grief shaming is not how we’re going to get there.
We need solidarity against atrocity. We need to stand together and do our absolute best to dissolve the dividing lines we draw for ourselves. Please do not divide us further by mocking or otherwise undermining those who mourn the victims of the Paris attacks – or the victims of attacks anywhere else for that matter.
Stand with Paris, if your heart tells you to do so, as an example of targeted terrorist violence that mirrors countless others.
Stay aware, stay informed, work for universal empathy, and keep supporting and caring for the people you love.
Most importantly, always make sure those people know that you love them.