I know that I should say something. I can’t think of anything else to say. My heart has felt heavy since Friday night. Since my friend went into the bathroom halfway through dinner and I popped open my phone to idle away the few minutes. As you do.
It feels like we have to have an opinion. We have to have the right opinion. We have to have it now. But I don’t know what opinions to have. I don’t know what the right thing to think is.
We keep hearing that it is wrong to grieve Paris more than Beirut. And yes, I understand that. Yes. I understand that a Lebanese life is every bit as valuable as a Parisian. I understand that deep, unjust wells of inequality and racism run through our responses to tragedy. I understand how blisteringly unfair it is that when hundreds of people die in one city the world stops in its tracks, but when hundreds are murdered in another we shake our head, sigh and move on.
But when I saw the news about Paris it wasn’t just a tragedy in a city far away. I wasn’t thinking about the world or our structures of power and unfairness. When I saw the news about Paris my stomach dropped. I picked up my phone.
“Are you okay? I heard the news- are you safe?!”
A few minutes later, messages. They were safe. They’re safe. Relief. I could breathe again.
In the Bataclan, people were still being shot. Still dying. My friends aren’t worth an inch more than the people who died in that moment. But they are mine. And while I am not proud of the relief that felt like blood returning to my body, I am not ashamed of it either.
The next day, I heard that someone I had never met was murdered on Friday. I never knew Lola Salines. But she played roller derby, just like me.
When I heard about her death? I remembered something that made me smile a few months ago. Me and a bunch of derby friends were at a gig. We bump into some people up the front, start a (tiny) impromptu mosh pit. Not even a pit. A pit-let? An hour or so in, one of the strangers spots the numbers I haven’t quite managed to wash off my upper arms.
“Hey, do you play derby?!” Of course I do! And of course they do, too. Derbs, I find, have a knack for finding a way to knock each other over of a night out.
Lola was killed. Her teammate is in hospital. Another woman from another Paris team is in hospital too. I’ve never met any of them but- god– I know that if I lived in Paris, I would know them. These are the people I would be going to gigs with and trying to knock over after a few pints. If I’d met them last week at a game or on a bus I know we’d talk about our sport (“who do you skate with?“, “how long’re you skating?“), about Champs (“Rose City, though! ROSE CITY!“) and we’d find some friends in common. Of course we would.
I never met Lola Salines. In one small way, she was like me. In that small way, she could have been me or any of the teammates I love. The lives of people I’ve never heard of aren’t worth an inch less than hers. But she was part of something that I am part of too, and her death cuts through a community I love.
I know that my relief for my friends and my heartbreak over Lola’s murder aren’t fair. I know that the people who died in Beirut are as important as they are. They’re just further from my life.
I know that Paris’s closeness and the distance of Beirut aren’t just a matter of geographical proximity. I remember sending the same anxious messages to Sydney and to Abuja in the aftermath of attacks, needing to know that my friends are safe.
The personal is political. We know it. While there is nothing wrong with my having friends in Paris and not Beirut, that fact is part of a global pattern of the West paying attention to itself and nobody else. The West being friends with itself and nobody else.
I understand this: the fact that I can personalise attacks on Paris but not Beirut changes how they feel. It’s deeply unfair when millions of privileged people from powerful countries only have the tools to humanise each other. We need to change this. When we make fortresses of our societies, people on both sides of the wall no longer have the opportunity to know each other. To be friends whose hearts drop with fear when something happens that could hurt each other.
And I understand this: this is a bigger problem than any of us. While the personal is political, the political is personal as well. We can understand that our world is broken and still care deeply for our friends and the places we’ve been.
I understand this, too: shaming each other isn’t going to help. It’s not.
On Saturday I grieved for Paris. Saturday was also the first I’d heard about Beirut. I hadn’t really been following the news this week- been busy with my own life, I guess. It happens. I think that’s how many of us live our lives. We can’t have an emotional response to everything that happens in the world, any more than we can have an emotional connection to every person we pass on the street.
I don’t think that the solution to this is to shame people for our emotional responses. Maybe, instead, we do this: we work to understand the boundaries of human empathy and acknowledge our own emotional limits. We know that we can only truly feel the humanity of a small number of people. We also know that everyone else’s humanity is just as valid.
If we acknowledge our limits, we don’t have to shame each other for responding more strongly to tragedies that befall people we feel connected to. And we can use our rational minds to understand- even if we can’t feel– that what happens elsewhere matters. When we understand that we are biased, we can create the tools to act beyond those biases. We can’t create or use those tools unless we admit what we are made of. Unless we look at ourselves without shame.
I don’t have any expert opinion on Daesh. But I know this: if we (all of us, not just Westerners) want to be better than them, we need to look beyond ourselves. I don’t know any more about Daesh than you do (less than many of you, I’m sure) but I know this: it’s a lot easier to murder someone if you can deny their humanity first. And I know that if I can feel the humanity of my Parisian friends more than strangers in Lebanon, then a Daesh fighter can feel their community’s humanity far more than mine.
If we want to be better, we have to be different. We can’t just be mirror images of each other- one side inflicting atrocities on another, who respond in kind. If we want to be better, we have to start by acknowledging that we can’t feel each others’ humanity. We have to continue into understanding that that doesn’t mean a damn thing. We need to question- not shame, question- how our emotional responses lead to actions, and whether these actions value the lives of people we see as like us over those we assume to be different.
I don’t know where that would lead. But unless we do it, I can’t see anything changing.
And we need to change. If we respond to the Paris attacks by shutting down our borders to people fleeing Syria, all we are doing is leaving millions of people to die. If we respond by attacking people for being Muslim, we’re the same as those who kill people for not being Muslim “enough”.
I don’t know how to make any of this better.
I think that when we rush to give our opinions, it’s like a grieving person bustling about at a funeral. Maybe if we find something to do, we won’t have to hurt so much. Maybe if we could find the right words to say, we can make it better.
But we can’t make this better. We can’t fix what happened. We can’t go back to 2003 and prevent the US from invading Iraq. We can’t go back to 2001 and stop those hijackers from getting on their planes. We can’t stop the Cold War from having provided the backdrop to a nascent al-Qaeda. We can’t do a bloody thing about any of that. Our world is broken and no opinion of ours can stop that from having happened.
I don’t know what else to say. My heart still aches for what we’ve lost and for what has been created. I’m still afraid for the future. I still doubt that we can find a kinder, more humane way through this. And that’s still the only hope I’ve got.
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