Like so many others in the Western world, I spent this past weekend grieving for the tragic events in Paris. I was struck by the outpouring of sympathy from people around the world.
It Feels Personal
Like others who have visited or lived in Paris, my heart was saddened by the bombings and shootings that ravaged the City of Light. I grieve for the hundreds of wounded or traumatized people who were present at a venue targeted by the ISIS bombers. I regret the deaths.
On a personal note I grieve for the foreign exchange students who spent Friday night in one of the cafes and bars that were on the terrorists’ hit list. Like them, I too was once an exchange student in Paris.
Was the massive outpouring of grief this weekend triggered by memories of 9/11?
Do we grieve because so many people we know have visited Paris at least once in their lives — thanks to its being one of the most heavily visited cities anywhere?
Paris occupies a special place in our hearts. Unlike places in the Middle East whose cities we can’t even name…
Do we fear, self-referently, that this could so easily have happened to me?
Should we drop Paris visits from our bucket list?
And Yet, And Yet
A thoughtful friend posted a reminder on Facebook, pointing out that things are so much worse, everyday, in war-torn places like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. 129 people died in Paris on Friday. Meanwhile, more than 210,000 people have died in Syria over the past 4 years; more than half civilians — innocent bystanders like the people in Paris on Friday.
Where is the massive outpouring of sympathy or help for people who suffer in Syria or other war-torn Islamic countries?
Are we less empathetic because so few of us have traveled to the Middle East or North Africa? Because we are unlikely to have read books or watched movies that would give us insights into what it’s like to live there? We don’t read or write Arabic. Their music sounds odd to us.
We may all, in some fashion, have a common history as People of the Book — but we haven’t read each other’s Book (Bible vs. Koran).
Do we demonize each other because we feel, somehow, that they are too radically different from us? Why are fear and hatred our only practiced responses? Why is it always US versus THEM, instead of WE?
We need to break the endless cycle of violence that’s grounded in mutual ignorance and antipathy. That means we need education, empathy and insights to help us understand the peoples, cultures and grievances that fuel the savage energy that ISIS exploits. We need jointly to uncover alternatives to the Islamic State’s reliance on warfare and terrorism as its only (apparent) means of bringing about change.
Therefore our educational, religious and civic institutions need to devise a different and more nuanced strategy, one that has a possibility of different and better outcomes. At the national level we need to rethink budgeting priorities.
The Costs of the Status Quo Are Too High
I’m no diplomat or politician, so I fear we are on the verge of another century of warfare between Judeo-Christians and militant Islamic people. I worry that the cycle of violence will continue until Americans and Europeans develop more empathy and a deeper understanding of the problems that plague everyday people who live in the Islamic world. Sadly, we need to understand each other before we can learn to tolerate each other.
We’re all blinded by ignorance today, so it’s all too easy to be manipulated or terrorized by warmongering politicians or hate-fueled bigots. Collectively, we do not put enough time, energy or money into the painful work of developing more lasting solutions. We invest in short-term humanitarian band-aids (as in, texting $10 to the Red Cross), but not in long-term systemic solutions.
For most Americans it’s hard to understand what it’s like to grow up in a place where the majority of people live in poverty, illiterate or poorly educated, taught only lies about so-called infidels: Jews, Christians and Western civilization (“tools of Satan.”) It’s hard for us to visualize places where young people grow up hungry, angry, overwhelmed with burdens, lacking dreams or realistic hopes for life-sustaining jobs.
Given those straitened circumstances it’s easy for ISIS zealots to recruit young men for suicidal missions against people they view as godless or worse. If you have no positive reason to go on living, why not get yourself on the fast track to Paradise, as promised by the ISIS jihadists?
Western governments’ easy-to-execute responses, of lashing back at terrorists with missile strikes and armed warfare, is unlikely to break the cycle of violence in any lasting way. Just look at the impacts of Bush’s war on Iraq or Afghanistan as poster children for the enduring consequences of military-only interventions. What makes us think that this time there will be a different outcome?
This horrific feedback loop will continue as long as people drawn to ISIS can envision no better path than terrorist actions that result in a fast ticket (or so they believe) to martyrdom in Paradise.
I urge our educators, civic leaders, and governments to seek out a different path, devising long-term plans and strategies that enable our differing worlds to resolve our differences in more lasting ways.
Until we do so, our over reliance on “waging war against terrorism,” will do nothing but keep us all mired in a bloody and endless cycle of warfare and terrorism.
In the meantime I’m crying for the people who lost lives or limbs in Paris…