Reflections on Paris, Friday the 13th

This is not a political blog, I am not a journalist. Generally, when I write here it is to share my beautiful adventures and to reflect on the things I am learning while exploring the world. Sometimes, however, things happen that aren’t beautiful and that make me question the things that I learn. So while it isn’t the normal tone, I’m going to take a page and talk about the terror attacks.

When I was in grad school, I studied religious terrorism. I nearly wrote a thesis paper on it, but events conspired and I ended up writing about a cult instead. I haven’t pursued a career in anti-terrorism or international relations, or any of the things I studied in school really, but I’m still completely fascinated with the field and keep up with a lot more international news than is probably healthy for me. So when I got in my car and turned on NPR and heard the BBC reporters explaining the unfolding events of Friday 13th in Paris, I was immediately aware of the depth of what I was hearing, even if I had not fully processed the information. I knew it was going to be big, like 9/11 had been for Americans big.

20150521_090755Then I watched the internet and saw the outpouring of emotions: support for Paris, hatred of Daesh (ISIS), fear of and for immigrants fleeing Syria, anger from Muslims around the Middle East at the West’s ability to ignore violence until it happened to white people, remonstrations and blame in many directions, and fortunately a good deal of “love the whole world” sentiments as well. I started trying to pick apart these views and feelings, as well as understand my own. I changed my Facebook pictures to shots I’d taken this spring when I was in Paris, but I couldn’t bring myself to use the flag filter after seeing so much pain from those in Lebanon.

I’m not proposing that I have any answers. In fact, one of the things that I learned in grad school was that research raises more questions than it provides answers. So I’m going to talk about some things, and share some ideas, and ask some questions. I hope you’ll think about it too.

The Silk Ring Theory

Shortly before this all happened, I ran across an article on my Facebook feed titled  “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing”. 
It explained this issue we have with our reactions to someone in pain, and how we can focus too much on our own pain and forget how to be supportive. The Silk Ring Theory introduces a set of concentric circles with the person most affected in the center ring, and each progressive ring containing the people less directly impacted.
In the case of the Paris attacks, then, those who were injured, or lost loved ones, or even were just at ground zero are in the center circle. Their friends, families, etc who were not there but are still closely connected in the next. Parisians, then French people and so on…As an American who once visited Paris, I’m pretty far out in the rings. The theory also instructs with the motto “care in, dump out” meaning that anything you say to someone in a smaller circle needs to be comforting, and you can only dump selfish or negative feelings outward. Hence the huge outpouring of comfort towards the French people who are ALL in a smaller circle than we Americans is totally appropriate.

But lets look at where we are dumping. Who do we see as being in a larger circle than us? Is it Muslims? Is it immigrants? Is it just anyone who has less historical or personal connection with France? So, if it’s your neighbor who has never been to France, or Australia because they didn’t trade freedom statues back in the day, it’s correct to say they are in a larger circle and you can dump some of your fear and uncomforty feelings their way. But, when it comes to the people of the Middle East, immigrant or not, we have to consider another circle: the circle of Daesh terrorism.

It’s clear that in the Paris attacks, Parisians are right at the center of that circle, however, the reign of Daesh terror is much larger than France and has been going on in the Middle East for arguably more than a decade. The people who have been killed, enslaved, raped, mutilated, murdered and displaced by Daesh are the center of this other circle of tragedy. And for them, the French people and the American people are equally far out in the rings. So, it’s also understandable that they should be frustrated when they see us offering so much “comfort in” toward France while they get ignored or worse, “dumped out” at.

So what do we do when we have two groups of people at the center of their own circles of tragedy who also exist as outer rings for each other? I don’t know. But, we can try to remember what the tragedy is, and who is at the center, and where the people we’re comforting or dumping on are in relation to us before we speak.

The Bandwagon

So, I learned the term Daesh  while I was living in Saudi Arabia. My friends and students taught it to me because it was important to them not to give the radical group any legitimate creedence. The first “S” in ISIS and ISIL stands for the English word “state” and, they argue, it gives too much legitimacy to a rouge group to call them a “state”. The Arabic “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham” could be argued to translate as “state” or “country” (I’m by no means fluent), but the acronym has also come to mean “a bigot who imposes his view on others” and the group themselves hate it to little bitty pieces. I mean, don’t you think Westboro or KKK would be upset if we started calling them “asshole bigots” instead of using the names they chose for themselves. Bring it.

But when I came back to the US and tried to use the term, or even to explain it to other people, I was pretty universally met with dismissal or curious amusement at best. I changed no one’s vocabulary. It became awkward for me to use the term because no one knew what it meant and I was seen as “showing off” my knowledge or linguistic skills or international travel. The French president and our own VP had both made statements in the news urging people to start using the term and they were ignored too, so at least I can’t take it too personally.

Now everyone is using it. It’s all over facebook and my co-workers are self correcting, “ISIS, wait no, now it’s Daesh” like it’s suddenly changed. I sound bitter, I know. I’m trying really hard to be grateful that more people are becoming aware of this issue and the importance of words giving or taking legitimacy, but I really wish that people could be persuaded to give a damn without first world tragedy being plastered all over every form of media. No one cared when it was Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, etc. But Paris, OMG. It’s like al-Qaeda again, no one cared until New York.

fb paris flag copy

So, there it is really. Use the bandwagon if it helps us make the world better, but ask yourself why you’re riding it now and where were you when John Kerry and I were trying to get you to say “Daesh” instead of “ISIS”, or why you’re changing your Facebook picture to a French flag right now. I’m not blaming, it’s not like I was on the front lines either. I don’t know if I would have learned about it before you if I hadn’t take the trip to Saudi, but I know the answer to these questions for myself. I needed a personal connection. I needed to see and meet the people who were most affected by these terrorists (it’s not New Yorkers, btw). Not everyone can take a trip to the Middle East, but I bet most of you know someone from there or at least see them around. Maybe take the time to listen to them, hear what they have to say and how they feel about Daesh and the situation in their homeland. Personal connections go a long way to making things real and important.

Why Is Paris More Important?

Which brings me to my next point. Why the heck we’re exploding about Paris after ignoring Iraq, Syria, and most recently Lebanon? My personal connection to the people of the Middle East made me more aware of the contrast. I got to see posts on my facebook from people still living there, connections I made and didn’t want to give up. It was really wrecking to see them so hurt and angry. Some people were simply gently reminding us not to forget about them, but others were angry at the media and at us for ignoring them, and a few even said that France got what it deserved for the way it had been acting. These people weren’t Daesh sympathizers, they hate Daesh, but they were angry at the West too for so many things that it was hard for them not to see the attacks as a kind of retribution or at very least a “now you know what it feels like”.

I wanted this to be more than just “white people” or “rich people” because while I know our culture does over focus on the rich/white, it was hard for me to think that this huge reaction was only from this. Then one of my former Professors from the UW, Zev Handel, put a post up on his wall explaining it in more detail. He starts off by saying what I think we all know and agree with, that all human life matters and should matter equally. The lives of Parisians are not worth more than the lives of Lebanese. But,

“The attack in France is different. Its implications for our lives are vast. First, unlike the attacks in Beirut, it signifies a very real and increased danger for those of us who live in major American cities. The desire and ability of ISIS (or whoever it turns out is behind the Paris attacks) to pursue its political agenda by instigating mass casualties outside of the Middle East means that what happened in Paris could quite easily happen in New York, or DC, or Los Angeles, or Chicago, or Seattle. It’s not surprising that many Americans experienced a more visceral shock from Paris than from Beirut (or from South Sudan or from Iraq or from all the other places in the world that are constantly convulsed by violence).

Second, this event is going to reshape our lives in ways that the Beirut attack never could have. It will change the tenor and possibly the outcome of the presidential election. It will change our military posture and could quite conceivably mean that many more people we know and love will go off to fight wars on foreign soil. It will have immediate and palpable effects on our experiences at airports and public venues. And so on.”

This brings me back around to the idea of personal connections. In the case for compassion, it’s about meeting the people who are impacted, but in the case of taking action, responding to fear or danger, it’s about feeling that impact in our own lives. Most people don’t have a personal connection to the Middle East so it was hard for them to get excited or riled up about the violence that’s happening there. However, we are more familiar with Paris and even if we love making fun of the French, there’s a sort of “nobody picks on my sister but me” feeling to the American responses. And of course, we feel the personal impact on something as simple as increased airport security for our upcoming holiday travel plans.

Paris isn’t more important. But humans have a natural tendency to focus on what affects them most. Instead of focusing on why swathes of humanity only seem to care when it hits close to home (or worse, blaming them for not doing enough) perhaps we can look for ways to help show people how groups like Daesh affect them before they blow up another stadium full of people? How can we make more connections?

The Blame Game

So, in all of this there is tons of blame flying around (I may be guilty of some blamey thoughts myself, too). I mentioned before that some Arabs were blaming the French for their own attack, others blame the West at large for not doing more, plenty blame each other. For their part westerners are blaming all Muslims, the Quran, the refugees and each other, and of course both Bush and Obama.

Brené Brown has some neat insights on blame and why it sucks,  but generally I think most of you know that blame is hurtful and counterproductive. We get caught up in the gray area between trying to understand why something happened and absolving ourselves of responsibility. It’s useful to understand the history behind an event, what led up to it, what contributes to it. As Brené points out, it is our natural tendency to leap to blame as fast as possible.

I’m lucky in that I live in a place where people are generally liberal and tolerant, so I don’t really see a lot of backlash against Muslims or refugees where I am right now. But I see that there are people in my country signing petitions to keep them out, or send them away. I mostly see people expressing concern for immigrants and refugees, but I recognize that the concern stems from responses to threats made by those to are afraid and don’t understand. I’ve lost track of how many different memes I’ve seen trying to explain or metaphor the total lack of relationship between Daesh and the majority of Islam. I’m not sure what’s going to get through to the people who are too afraid to listen, but I recommend Reza Aslan’s work, especially the interview that has gone viral in the wake of the attacks explaining once again how there is no such thing as “Muslim countries” as a single identity.

 

Just as blame is a response to fear and anger, so can be the urge to retaliation. I’m seeing a lot of people out there calling for a fight. France itself initiated several strikes in the days following the Paris attacks. But the reality is that unstructured violence, fear, blame, anger, and misunderstanding are tools for Daesh just as much as AKs and bomb vests. Will the militaries of the world need to take action to eliminate this threat? Most certainly, for they don’t seem the types to give in to logic, compassion or diplomacy. But we should look at these military actions as necessary structured violence, not a triumphant act to be enjoyed or reveled in. And for those of us who are not in the active military service we should remember that our best tools to combat terror are understanding, compassion, and personal connection. If you really want to fight Daesh, do so. But if you don’t want to join the military to do it, try fighting a different way: befriend a Muslim, help a refugee, learn the truth instead of spreading the rumors, invite an Imam to speak at your Church.

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think anyone does, which is why I go looking far and wide for ideas and insights. I hope that I’ve given you some things to think about, some questions to ask, some ideas to share and maybe even some constructive actions to take.

 

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