With the awful attack in Nice last night, I figured it was time to write another post about terrorism. This time, though, I want to write about our response to it. I remember that after the November attacks in Paris, a number of people (myself included) converted their Facebook profile pictures to have French flags overlayed on top. As a Prussophile and Anglophile, I have no particular love of the French. However, as an act of solidarity, I felt obliged to show my support in my own small way.
Not everyone agreed with this policy, though. A number of my Facebook friends began to complain that those of us who converted our profile pictures were racist, insensitive, and uncaring. We stand united when France is attacked, but when Beirut or Baghdad or Kabul are hit, nobody even knows. Ultimately, I think these critiques are seriously off the mark.
Of course people react more viscerally when France or Belgium are attacked than when a Middle Eastern or Central Asian country is attacked. We, as Americans, are Westerners. Many of us have visited Paris or Nice, some of us have friends in France, and others of us have hosted French exchange students. Moreover, France is a symbol of the West. The French Revolution pushed rationalism and empiricism, and French philosophers helped build the intellectual foundations of liberty and democracy. These dynamics simply don’t exist when it comes to Middle Eastern countries.
Ironically, it is the people who prioritize lived experience and personal perspectives – the Black Lives Matter supporters, for instance – that tend to be the ones who are so outraged at seeming Western indifference. These activists are correct to point out that we all have different lived experiences that affect how we view the world, and they are right that the African American community has a particular and troubled relationship with law enforcement that makes them justifiably more scared of the authorities than other groups. However, many of these same people conveniently forget that Western populations have a unique connection with France and Western Europe that simply doesn’t exist with other regions. This is a cultural aspect that is due to heritage, language, and political philsophy; it shapes American foreign policy and the way Americans think about the world. In short, these defining characteristics are just as powerful as the community solidarity that occurs when an innocent black man gets shot. To pretend that one is justifiable while the other is racist is to move the goalposts to fit political agendae.
Moreover, I find it deeply offensive that people were shamed for standing in solidarity with a people victimized by large-scale terror. Instead of recognizing that over a hundred people were slaughtered indiscriminately for doing literally nothing wrong, the SJW community decided to instead use the tragedy to agitate for their agenda. Mass murder is not a political opportunity, it is a tragedy. While those arguing for more respect and care toward non-Western societies certainly have a valid point, their exploitation of French deaths to shame people tarnishes their message in an extreme way. Indeed, to use BLM and its critics as an example again, it’s sort of like right-leaning groups bringing up “black on black” crime every time an innocent African American is slaughtered by police. It is a valid concern – we do need to take measures to increase prosperity and decrease crime in predominantly African American communities – but it is not an excuse to ignore the suffering and pain a community feels when their neighbors and friends are gunned down.
Finally, it is important to remember that there is a fundamental difference between the types of attacks that occur in the U.S. and Europe and those that occur in the Middle East: the message they intend to send. An attack on Parisians or San Bernadinans is an attack against Western culture. It is an attack on religious liberty, democracy, secularism, consumerism, and every other defining feature of the West. We, as a group, are targeted because of our way of life and our culture. It is not just wanton killing; it is an attack on the very essence of what our society stands for. By contrast, the vast preponderance of attacks in the Middle East are not directly targeted at Western society. They are political plays by militant groups designed to undermine governments, terrorize sectarian rivals, or fight assymetric warfare against conventional police and military forces. They are still reprehensible – wanton killing is unacceptable in any circumstance – but they don’t have the same political motivations as attacks against America or France or Belgium. Of course our responses are different! One attack is designed to attack who we are as a society, the other is an attack inspired by dynamics and forces that we don’t directly experience.
To be clear, my argument is not that we shouldn’t care about non-Western groups. Their lives are just as valuable and their struggle against tyranny and violence is grave indeed. However, we have to realize that our culture, friends, and experiences shape the way we view the world. To pretend that an American of French heritage who has climbed the Eiffel Tower will feel the same way about a market bombing in Damascus as they do with a mass-cassualty attack in Nice is asinine. The situations are not the same, and the emotional baggage is different for each. Embracing the idea of lived experience is very important: It helps us to understand the dynamics of domestic racial strife, and will hopefully allow us to better understand each other and create positive change for all groups. However, we can’t discard this dynamic when it is no longer poltically expedient. That’s not how this works.