In the early moments of a bitter morning in November, I was barefoot and alert, seated silently on a worn couch that had previously been a paradise for laughter. Now, it served as a place of solitude as I tried to come to terms with the horrific events that had occurred in Paris, France, on Nov. 13.
My phone rested on the table in front of me, uncharacteristically blank and removed from my hands. As I unlocked the device my face was illuminated with blue, white, and red—colors of the French flag that doubled as signals of sympathy in the midst of an ISIS attack that French President Francois Hollande called an act of war.
Scores of Americans showed their allegiance to the people of France by projecting the colors of the country’s flag onto their social media profiles. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat made expressing support as easy as the click of a button. The question that arose out of the instant solidarity was one that haunted me on the morning of Nov. 14—why were the lives lost in Paris the only ones worthy of attention?
A day before the violence in the capital of France, an attack in Beirut, Lebanon, left 43 people reported dead and 250 injured. Hours before the Paris attacks, a suicide bombing in Baghdad, Iraq, left 18 people reported dead and 41 injured. Yet these tragedies did not receive a massive outpour of compassion from the United States.
Without a doubt, our colorful response to the stark terror in Paris is slacktivism—activism taking place on the Internet with little effort—in its most self-indulgent form. But the reason behind our emotional reaction to the lives lost in France and lack thereof to the lives continually lost in other places in the world is a bit more uncomfortable. At a glance, the answer is simple. The ISIS attack on Paris was unexpected. With 128 innocent people reported dead, I am by no means saying that the tragedy was not worthy of our immense support. However, the endless saga of violence inflicted on civilians in the Middle East is a book our news industry has begun to close.
“When my people died, they did not send the world in mourning,” Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor, wrote on his blog. “Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world.”
Although the victims in Paris were from a diverse array of ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds, the city, as a location, symbolizes an American narrative. It’s a powerful economic capital with long-standing allegiance to the United States. The implication behind our comprehensive coverage in Paris, as Fares said, is that Arab lives matter less. Our media stations have picked up on a concept that decides what we see from what we don’t see—news tells a story. What viewers look for in a current event is what they look for in any good tale; a main character with the power to make them feel something. The protagonist in the narrative of the United States has always been the white man.
In elementary school we wrote down the history of our red, white, and blue nation; a history told to us from behind blue eyes. In the fifth grade I could easily explain what Manifest Destiny was, but the term genocide was a little more ambiguous. Yet the two events occurred simultaneously: westward expansion and the genocide of indigenous peoples. This is where we first learn who the protagonist will be and who will earn most of our attention—Westerners.
History as told via the Western narrative is often recast in its dissemination. McGraw-Hill geography textbooks that have long been in circulation call African slaves “workers.” A simple word change erases any narratives that oppose American exceptionalism, reinforcing the idea that the our version of history is absolute. Our waning concern for the Middle East reflects the unspeakable suffering expunged from our past.
In the home where I grew up, the skin of my parents matched our white picket fence. They cannot comprehend the suffering of indigenous peoples, they have not lived with the generational trauma of slavery, and they can never fully understand the influence these events have had. Neither can I. I can only grasp at the understanding of these events with the hope of finding real sympathy. The issue of finding the protagonist isn’t one that has suddenly arisen in light of international crisis. It is one that stems deep into the core of our country.
I believe that beauty can be found every day in this country and in countries all over the world. However, before we sit down to pray for Paris and the dream of world peace, we must accept where we stand as a country—on ground that bears the footprints of all who have fallen prey to the American Dream.