Yesterday's horrific attack in Brussels spurred a bit of "Je Suis Bruxelles" sympathizing on FaceBook and other social media platforms. Truth be told, it wasn't anywhere near as much as the pro-France messaging when that country was attacked in November, leaving 130 people dead. But even the relatively muted reaction to the Brussels attack was enormous compared to that given to similar attacks this month. On March 13, a car bomb killed 37 people and wounded 100. On March 21st, 4 people were killed by a suicide bomber in the same nation. But while they made the news, neither attack elicited the kind of spontaneous expressions of sympathy that did France and to a smaller degree, Brussels.
Why is that?
Now, I'm not here to shame anyone for posting "I (heart) Brussels" on Facebook. And I won't insist that every massacre and atrocity get the same coverage and the same reaction from the public.
But why the differences?
The country that lost 41 people in attacks this month was Turkey. As in France and Brussels, the attackers were from ISIS. Turkey has a large Muslim majority, but it has steered a secular path in a region that is riven with religious sectarianism. In short, the Turks are like us. But I don't recall seeing one "Je Suis Ankara" post on my Facebook feed, and I ran across no drives to send help to that troubled country.
Is it because so many Muslims live there? Could be. We have been trained for many years to see Muslims as either the feared Other or as the to-be-protected Other. But either way, Muslims are often "other," regardless of our disposition towards them. We (and by that I mean Christians) don't know much about them, and less about their beliefs. I admit that, as a Christian, I am a bit put off that someone who believes my greatest divine figure, Jesus, is secondary to one to theirs. Not enough to hate them or want them discriminated against. But the uneasiness is there. Same with Jews, who don't give my guy any place in their worship at all. I can easily coexist with both groups, but there's a whole area of my life that I can't share with them. And that creates some irritation, however minuscule. So maybe that little bit of emotional distance accounts for the difference in reactions.
I would bet that lots of Americans think that "this sort of thing" -- bombings, shootings, massacres and the like -- are typical for place like Turkey. It's part of the Middle East, where such violence is endemic. No matter that Turkey is more like the West than it is to its Arab neighbors -- in culture, government and sympathy for extreme religion. That makes a bombing in Turkey tragic and newsworthy, certainly. But to those without an intimate familiarity with the region, its easy to lump Turkey's recent violence with the everyday violence that occurs in places like Syria, Lebanon and the West Bank. So, we might not be shocked when a bomb blows up waves hands around vaguely) "over there."
I don't think that we have lost our capacity for empathy for the victims of the attacks that have taken place around the world. If we knew the people involved, we would surely be moved. A murdered child is a soul-rending event regardless of its nationality, color of its skin or the motives of the attacker. But shock value seems to drive our reactions more than it should. The Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 were a surprise and a direct assault on a close ally's freedom of speech. The Stade de France and Bataclan attacks last November were shocking because of the scale of the killings and the fact that the victims were doing such ordinary things on a Friday night: watching a soccer game, dining out and enjoying a rock concert. We westerners could easily identify with the victims. They could have been us. But the Brussels attack targeted ordinary people too -- some of them just trying to catch a plane to start a vacation. Maybe even ISIS attacks in the middle of Europe are becoming less of a shock and more of "this sort of thing" that hardly merits a second glance.
I don't think we care less about Belgians than we do the French, any more than we really care less about the Turks -- or the Lebanese, or the Nigerians, or the Palestinians -- or any other group that suffers massacres or terroristic violence. But any tiny step that puts people at a remove from us -- be it their color, geographical distance, history, religion, politics, rottenness of their government, incompetence of their police -- adds a layer of emotional insulation to our hearts, preventing us from reacting as quickly or as strongly to their plight. Our politicians work hard to justify these layers of indifference. The worst of us learn to actively dismiss the pleas of the helpless. The best of us sink into a sense of powerlessness and inevitability. Soon, torn and suffering people are left to fend for themselves.
It takes an effort of the will to force ourselves to look on the pain of every new group of sufferers. It takes a conscious effort to oppose the natural human tendency to shut down and to turn away. In this season when we are encouraged to gaze and meditate upon the wounds of Christ, let's not forget that Christ's wounds are freshest in flesh rent by bombs, Kalashnikovs and machetes. Sadly, the Crucifixion is replayed every day, in places near and far. Let's recall that Christ did not die so that we might fetishize his death, but that we might see in our wounded brothers and sisters the marks of Calvary impressed anew.