Why Do We Selectively Mourn Tragedies?*

by Benjamin Wolter

On November 12, 2015, two foreign men walked down the bustling streets of Beirut. They stopped at a local bakery, but had no intention of going inside. As bomb blasts erupted from each man’s chest, forty people fell dead on the streets, and two hundred others suffered maim and injury. Beirut was devastated (Barnard). The next day, Paris suffered the same fate. The same extremist group detonated a bomb at the Stadte de France, attacked multiple restaurants, and rained bullets upon the crowded Bataclan concert hall. Approximately 120 people died and 300 were injured (“Paris Attacks”). The days that followed sent the world into a coalition of grief, panic, and support. The press, politicians, and individuals (via social media) were set aflame—but only by one of the attacks. The Paris attacks spurred the release of thousands of articles: headlining BBC, CNN, and almost every major American news source, but a few scattered Beirut articles never caught the public eye (Barnard). Millions took to social media and placed a filter of the French flag over their profile pictures, but few Americans can name the colors of the Lebanese flag. Even President Obama declared the events in Paris “an attack on the civilized world” without ever acknowledging Lebanese tragedy. November 12th was forgotten in the Paris news storm.

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With unequal delegation of support, the world placed more value on the deceased Parisians than Lebanese. The same extremist group claimed responsibility for both attacks, and the people of both cities felt the same pain and terror, but for some reason, the media and the people clung to the Paris attacks and forgot Beirut. One might say more French people died, but if we compare numbers from the last year, Lebanon has bore the brunt of death and terror. This incident is not isolated, but widespread. Countless examples, particularly with regards to terrorism, show a heightened focus on one tragedy over another, even when the only differences are the people and places being affected. Assuming that human lives are and should be valued equally, why do we selectively mourn tragedies?

Market-Driven Media

The day after the Paris attacks, a number of Internet activists recognized these discrepancies in mourning. In a social media crusade, they promoted an article about the Garissa University terror attack—an April shooting of 147 students from a university in Kenya that, unlike the Paris attacks, did not receive a media firestorm—to number one on BBC’s online most-read-list. They did this not only to raise awareness of the tragedy, but to bring attention to the bias of the media (“Because of Paris”). However, there was a reason the Paris attacks had previously dominated that most-read-list: people wanted to read about it.

In his book, Democracy Matters, Cornel West describes the phenomenon of the “market-driven media.” More than ever, our media organizations are privatized, and produce “emotionally satisfying” content for their readers. Essentially, news organizations need to attract viewers/readers for their revenue—whether it be subscriptions, advertisements, or sponsorships. The most successful news organizations think about their audience, not the story, first and at even the most elemental levels of news, we can identify this trend. The Today Show and Good Morning America, the primary morning news shows for NBC and ABC, tend to highlight YouTube videos and trivial human interest stories over important information. The Today Show webpage on December 6th (the date I decided to look up the show) presented “Why my Children will be getting no Gifts this Hanukkah” as the top headline. In more serious journalism, millions of Americans witnessed the barrage of reporting surrounding the Boston bombing. Reporters did anything they could to get the most recent, most exciting, and most viewer-attracting information about the attack and the search for the bomber—even when the information was often wrong.

In terms of their focus, the media and the people are more a single body than separate. Certainly the people absorb media content, but the interests of the people—not their edification—is the primary goal of the modern media, and they recognize the people crave Paris over Beirut, one tragedy over another.

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Racism Without Racists

Perhaps it comes down to this: does the Western world care more when the victims are white? Internally, many nations have well-documented cases of discrimination towards minorities and immigrants. On November 30, 2015 (Thanksgiving day, actually) a man in Pittsburgh opened fire on his Muslim taxi driver after insistently questioning him about ISIS (Holley). Since September eleventh, hate crimes targeting Muslims have increased by five times, and, according to a Pew Research Poll, Americans view Muslims “more coldly” than any other major religious group (“How Americans Feel About Religious Groups”).

But one does not have to be decidedly racist to reserve prejudice. According to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, in his book Racism Without Racists, most whites will claim to “not see color” and to treat all people equally. However, they retain a culturally imbued racist outlook. Psychologists have tested this theory with the Implicit Association Test, whereby they measure instinctive racial association. For instance they might display an uncolored photograph of white or black facial features, then ask the test-taker to choose “good” or “bad” on the screen within seconds. The test shows a varying, but certainly present prejudice among white Americans (Kristof). For the most part, our selective mourning involves focusing on primarily white nations and overlooking nations of other ethnicities. If we take this “racism without racists” at face value—realizing not just flagrant racists contain inner bias—then racism could contribute to widespread selective mourning.

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The “Civilized” Nation

Additionally proximity, more emotionally than physically, plays a role in our grief. Just as one would be more saddened by the death of a family member than an outsider, one would likely feel more attached to the deaths of fellow countrymen. Cultural and heritage connections make the tragedy more personal, but America is a nation of immigrants, meaning many people have more than one home country. Approximately nine million Americans could potentially trace their ancestry back to France, but since 1948, Lebanese immigration has almost doubled French immigration, making them the largest Arabic ethnic group in the United States. Certainly more Americans feel a vague emotional connection to France (especially if we consider other European descendants) but many more Americans feel a stronger, more recent connection to Lebanon and are more likely to have direct kin in their home country (Hajar). Our emotional connection to France is better displayed by President Obama’s words after the attack, declaring France a “civilized nation.” We see Western nations (white, wealthier nations) on a different spectrum than a nation like Lebanon because they feel more similar to us. We know the name France because we learn its language in school, read about it in history, take vacations there, and consider it a hub of art and culture.

And if we feel this faux-proximity, perhaps we internalize the Paris attacks as fear. When ISIS has the ability and audacity to attack a nation we consider similar to ourselves, could we not be next? In his 1933 Inaugural Address, with America still reeling from the stock market crash, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” He recognized the power fear has over hearts and minds—the power to destroy a nation from the inside out. If the French attacks radiate more fear into America, then certainly we have a tendency to focus on that tragedy.

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Precarity

Perhaps expectations of tragedy drive selective mourning. On a personal level, just as the death of a young child feels more cruel than the death of an eighty-year-old, a tragedy that is unexpected causes more grief than a tragedy that is expected. Every act of terrorism is devastating and surprising from a local vantage point, but, according to a study by Professors John Sides and Kimberly Gross of George Washington University, many Americans tend to group the Middle East into a single narrow definition. We tend to see them all as Muslims, all as the enemy in our “war on terror,” and we can rarely name or distinguish between Middle Eastern nations. When we hear of turmoil in the Middle East, we attribute it to the whole nation (Sides). Ultimately, we become conditioned to their tragedy and emotionally block ourselves off. Judith Butler coins the term “precarity” to describe how we view lives in tragic situations. In the Middle East, where we perceive death and dying everywhere, we see the lives of those people as more precarious (Furusho). And when we see lives as already hanging in the balance, we feel less pain when they perish.  Loved ones feel the loss just as deeply, but others see them as a mere addition to the body count.

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Does Selective Mourning Matter?

On March 19, 2003, American forces invaded the nation of Iraq. President George W. Bush justified the invasion of Iraq as a continuation of the “war on terror” and with the claims that the government held threatening “weapons of mass destruction.” The American people, stricken with grief, fear, and anger from the attacks on September eleventh, stood behind him. In the early stages of the Iraq War, most news sources circulated information on non-existent Iraqi nuclear weapons and praised the technological might of our military. The people looked for a release for their tragedy-driven anger, and the press gave it to them. During the height of nationalistic fervor, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges denounced the Iraq War in his commencement speech at Rockford College. The crowd rose up with chants of “USA, USA, USA…” and “Where were you on September Eleventh!?” to drown out his appeal for human life, and, halfway through his speech, organizers of the event unplugged his microphone. But the press did not stand by this “elitist and pacifist.” Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the Wall Street Journal mocked Hedges’ speech with clips and commentary, and, more surprisingly, the New York Times did not support their regular contributor. Instead, the editors furiously confronted Hedges about his opposition to the Iraq war, threatening to fire him next time he spoke out—the American public supported the war, and so should he (Hedges). Some estimates say 500,000 Iraqis died in the next four years (Hagopian).

In the eyes of the media, not everyone is equal. Selective mourning is not just about the media emphasizing one story over another, but about respecting one race, one people, and one civilization over another. If our hub of information and analysis continues to pander to the people, then how can its viewers come to respect different perspectives? In 2003, we couldn’t remove ourselves from the tragedy of September eleventh to understand the lives we destroyed in Iraq. Iraqis were killed in the name of American freedom, but perished in American anger. And now France, after their own tragedy, has begun an intensive airstrike campaign on ISIS-controlled cities—areas inevitably inhabited by many civilians. As the world valued French lives over their middle-eastern counterparts, we created this complex of righteous anger, where France’s tragedy gave them the right to destroy innocent lives as collateral. When we chose a life worth mourning, we chose lives that weren’t.

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Works Cited

Barnard, Anne. “Beirut, Also the Site of Deadly Attacks, Feels Forgotten.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Nov. 2015. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

“Because of Paris, People Are Sharing News about a Seven-month Old Attack in Kenya for the First Time.” Quartz: Africa. Quartz, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Furusho, Carolina. “On Selective Grief: Can We Recognize All Lives as Equally Precarious?” Critical Legal Thinking. Critical Legal Thinking, 15 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Hagopian, Amy. “Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003–2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study.” PLOS Medicine. PLOS Medicine, 15 Oct. 2013. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Hajar, Paula, and J. Sydney Jones. “Lebanese Americans.” EveryCulture.com. Countries and Their Cultures, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Hedges, Chris. Death of the Liberal Class. New York: Nation, 2010. Print.

Holley, Peter. “Passenger Rants about Islamic State before Shooting Muslim Taxi Driver in Back.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 30 Nov. 2015. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

“How Americans Feel About Religious Groups.” Pew Research Center: Religion and Public Life. Pew Research Center, 16 July 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Kristof, Nicholas. “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Aug. 2014. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

“Paris Attacks: What Happened on the Night.” BBC News. BBC, 9 Dec. 2015. Web. 16 Dec. 2015.

Sides, John, and Kimberly Gross. “Stereotypes of Muslims and Support for the War on Terror.” Journal of Politics 598th ser. 75.583 (2013): 2-4. GW.edu. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.