Partial Sympathy: On the reactions to terrorism close to home
Photograph: Flickr / Gregory Bastien
At some point mid-way through the 18th century, Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote: “Now it appears that in the original frame of our mind, our strongest attention is confined to ourselves; our next is extended to our relations and acquaintances; and it is only the weakest which reaches to strangers and indifferent persons.” Hume was analysing the basic internal programming of human beings; what we think, how we feel and what motivates us to act.
On Thursday 12 November, 43 people died when two suicide bombers blew themselves up in southern Beirut, Lebanon. Twenty-four hours later, the horror of the attacks in Paris unfolded. The juxtaposition of these two atrocities has provoked a conversation about the basic unfairness of the way the world responds to such tragedies. Who even knew that 148 students were indiscriminately gunned down by Islamist bullies in Garissa, Kenya, earlier this year?
For some, the problem is the media – specifically, the western media. Fundamentally biased, it only ever shows us death and destruction when it affects people like “us”: white and rich, the most innocent of innocent civilians. Among those who make this complaint are the tiresome anti-West brigade, always keen to scratch a lifelong itch. They vandalise the sanctity of reflection as much as the reckless Islamophobes on the other end of the spectrum.
Of course, terrorist attacks in Turkey, Lebanon, Kenya, Mali – and, yes, Israel – are reported. No, they are obviously not “news” in the same way as an attack on the streets of Paris. Media organisations promote the content which generates the most attention. The coincidence of attacks in France and Lebanon does, however, provoke us to think about a different unfairness.
Hume’s argument in his Treatise of Human Nature was that because we are so naturally “partial” to our own kind – family, neighbours, compatriots – we have to manufacture what he called “artificial” values, which help connect us to and sympathise with complete strangers.
In one Twitter interaction after Paris, I mentioned that “there are tragedies around the world every moment of every day. The Paris attack (the event, not the lives) is more important to me.”
In a cold practical sense, the attack in Paris is more significant for everyone living in Britain than the Beirut bombings. Post-Paris, Europe’s open borders seem destined to close. Perhaps, too, its open heart and mind. And questions are also being asked about domestic security arrangements.
But there was a deeper bias in my reaction to the attack. I visited Paris for the first time over the summer. I spent a languid month adoring its architecture and befriending its people. I see myself lost on Rue la Fayette, hanging out past acceptable hours in Bastille. And I imagine myself on a Friday night in the Bataclan concert hall.
Many in Britain can similarly picture themselves in the City of Light. And those better travelled than me could probably list another half-dozen cities around the world for which they feel comparable affection. They would feel such a heinous attack on those places as grievously as I felt the attack on Paris.
I might, however, hesitate to point out Beirut or Garissa on a map. I recognise the loss in Thursday’s attack yet somehow it does not, if I am completely honest, move me in quite the same way. Somehow.
Furthermore, the British national sentiment towards France is special. She is our rivalrous sibling, the cousin on the other side of the family whose progress we watch with eager competition. Despite the ribbing and derision we are family nonetheless. I doubt the national outpouring in Britain would have been so effusive had the attacks occurred in Germany, Spain or Italy: firm western allies, similarly proximate but somehow just not as close.
In his Treatise, Hume suggested that self-interest is the only thing we really have in common with strangers, the foundation of sympathy. I hope he was wrong. Ours is a generation that will be better travelled, connected and perhaps even educated than any before. And we should actively seek to imagine ourselves in as many different countries and cultures as possible. Sympathy is not a substitute for messy political solutions to the world’s messy problems, of course. But it is the first step in reaching out to help ‘strangers and indifferent persons’.