On National Tragedies and Mourning

Like many of you, I was shocked by the attacks on Paris Friday night. It hit even closer to home, since I’d vacationed in Paris this past summer. I was impressed by the outpouring of support for the country from across the globe. And of course, me being me, I’ve had a number of thoughts on the subject. But today I really just have time to focus on one.

I’ve seen a fair bit of discussion online as some question why when Paris, France get attacked, everyone suddenly cares, but when Beirut, Libya, has a similar attack, or a Russian plane explodes with hundreds killed, we don’t see Libyan or Russian flags of support flying everywhere, or the world monuments lighting up in those colors to show everyone cares. It’s an interesting point, and one that deserves some thought, but in the end, I don’t think it really stands up to snuff for a number of reasons.

In the case of the Russian plane, it began as something terrible, yes. But not terrorism. We thought it was “simply” another tragedy in a string of plane troubles the last few years. Familiarity breeds contempt, and unfortunately we’ve had a number of planes disappear or crash, killing everyone on board. If this case had been definitive terrorism right from the get go, I believe the response would have been different, but even today there’s a fair bit of debate about what exactly brought that plane down. (Would it have inspired Russian flag Facebook profile pictures? More on that in a moment.)

Then there’s scale. The Libyan attack killed over 40 people. It’s depressing that an attack of that scale has failed to really move the needle when it comes to shocking the world, but it’s not without cause. We’ve had numerous examples of attacks on smaller scales. Numbers make a difference in response on a global scale, even if they don’t make any difference to the people directly involved. The ones who lost loved ones and friends. But if Beirut had lost 200 people, I still don’t think you’d have seen the same outpouring of support from Facebook and the world. Why?

For the individual people changing their profile pictures, I think it’s because Paris is a city they can directly relate to. Many of us have gone their on vacation. We learn all about France in school. France is an ally in many different international endeavors. France is far away, yes, but it’s close to home in many other ways. And people relate more to an incident when it happens to someone they know. When my grandfather died, I was upset, but I didn’t wonder why most of my friends on Facebook weren’t upset to the same scale as I was.

Should we be mad or frustrated that people in America don’t care about Libya on the same scale as France? I don’t think that’s warranted, personally. Tragedies like this shouldn’t be used as platforms to tell everyone that they ought to care more about the entire world. Then again, I believe tragedies like this help us to develop empathy and understanding when similar attacks happen elsewhere, and I think that’s what this questioning has really been caused by: people realizing that this shocking event in Paris plays out in one scale or another across the globe quite regularly.

The national monuments lighting up in the colors of the French flag are perhaps an event more worthy of scrutiny. Individuals may mourn in their own time and way, but is there some unwritten rule as to how big a tragedy has to be before other nations take note? These are complex issues. But ultimately, countries are made up of individuals, and the individuals running those countries are affected by tragedy the same as anyone else is, and so their reactions are going to be influenced by those same feelings.

Anyway. I’m out of time to post for now. I have to be running off for the day. There are people to meet and conferences to run, but I wanted to get this out there this morning as I continue to try to wrap my head around the world we live in today. So much sad. My thoughts go out to everyone affected by it, wherever they may be.

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