ASYMMETRICAL SYMPATHY

It’s not hypocritical to care more about Paris than Beirut

“We care about all people equally, and we will work hard to help people suffering in as many of these situations as we can.”—Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook’s CEO was forced to defend his company after it was fiercely criticized for activating its “Safety Check” feature in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Paris. Why, asked many commentators—especially those in the Middle East—was the feature (which asks Facebook users in a given area to confirm they are OK, and lets their friends see the confirmations) not available just 24 hours before, when terrorists bombed a neighborhood of Beirut?

It’s not just Facebook that finds itself accused of double standards. Western political leaders are facing criticism for failing to express the kind of conspicuous sympathy for the dead of Beirut they have professed for the victims of the Paris attacks. Why didn’t US president Barack Obama regard the bombing in the Lebanese capital an “attack on the civilized world,” as he described the tragedy in the French capital? The Western media, too, have been blamed (and defended) for disproportionate coverage of Paris, as compared with terrorism in Kenya, Mumbai, and across the Arab world.

Some of the criticism comes from commentators in the West, but it is felt most acutely in the Middle East. “When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag,” a Lebanese doctor wrote on his blog, cited by the New York Times (paywall). Many feel that the wider world—and not just politicians or the media—values Muslim lives less than others. One sign of this, it has been suggested, is that millions of people put variations of the French tricolore on their social-media avatars, whereas the cedar of the Lebanese flag was nowhere to be seen.

By those measures, it is inarguable that the world cares more for Paris than it does for Beirut. It’s not enough to argue that the City of Light has received more international attention and sympathy because the attacks there were so rare and unexpected, whereas Beirut is a place where such violence is the norm. In fact, Beirut had been relatively calm over the past couple of years, as Anne Barnard points out (paywall) in the New York Times, whereas this is the second major act of terrorism in Paris in 2015.

But what if we stop trying to justify ourselves and just admit the obvious? Multinational corporations like Facebook may feel obliged to affirm—and indeed, may be required to demonstrate—symmetrical sympathy with people all over the world, but that is an impossible standard for human beings. We do not “care for all people equally.” We can’t.

This is not about race. Even many Arabs are being chided for expressing more empathy with the French than with the Lebanese. Egypt was moved to light up the pyramids with the colors of the French and Russian flags (the latter, for the victims of the Metrojet flight), but not the red and white of Lebanon.

The world cares disproportionately about Paris because… well, it depends on who you are. If you’re European, it’s pretty obvious. If you’re American, you may be influenced by cultural affinity, or the fact that France is your country’s oldest ally. (That might explain why the American response to Paris has been greater than, say, the reaction to the 2004 Madrid bombings.) If you’re Japanese or Chinese, you may have been to Paris—or dream of going there one day. If you’re Colombian, perhaps you’re a fan of French soccer players, or of French cinema. And if you’re from the Arab world, in much of which French was once the standard second language, Paris may feel like a second home.

Let me put my own emotions on my sleeve. I care about Beirut, not only because I’m a journalist who covers the Middle East, but also because I have friends there. However, I care more about Paris than about Beirut, because I’ve been to Paris, and love it. The 2004 Madrid bombings affected me more than last week’s attacks on Paris, because I’ve visited the Spanish capital many more times, and love it more. The 2005 London attacks affected me still more because I lived in that city for two years. And more than all these, I care about terrorist attacks in Baghdad—even though they are very frequent—because I lived in Iraq five years, and have many, many friends there.

This doesn’t make me a hypocrite. It makes me human.

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