Selective Sympathy: Why the World Cared About Brussels (But Ignored Others)

We’re still in mourning. And at the same time, we’re in disbelief. We can’t help but experience the hair-raising primal fear that floods our being, plunging us into a heightened sense of paranoia and vulnerability. We can taste the “fed up” sticking to the back of our throats as we swallow our indignation and breathe out exasperation. We think, “Not again.” We are again wary, but we are also weary.

These are the typical reactions to acts of terror.

I think of the children, both those who have perished and those who lost parents or siblings in the wake of terrorism. I think of all the victims: what their last meal was, what their last thoughts may have been, what plans they had for that day.

Yet this anguish and devastation I describe isn’t your sorrow. It isn’t what the vast majority have been following in around-the-clock news coverage. Yes, I’m talking about recent terrorist attacks, but because what I’m referring to didn’t occur on US or European soil, Western media has largely downplayed its significance.

Why?

It’s all about narratives. I often quote American academic Robert McKee, who once said, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, news media is a form of propaganda. When it comes to the Western world, major news outlets are founded on white supremacist ideology and diligently nourish the concerns of a white-oriented culture.

This isn’t to say “all white people hate people of color” or that “all whites” are aligned with the likes of skinheads and those who gallivant in white hoods screaming “White Power!” No.  What it means is that there is oftentimes a surplus of value assigned to certain lives and circumstances while a distinct deficit of regard is extended to others. The demarcation between which response a disaster receives is usually dependent on its relatability to whiteness.

Cartoon by Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune

Cartoon by Pat Bagley, Salt Lake Tribune

When terrorist attacks are perpetrated in countries like France or more recently Belgium, news reports are intensified and abundant. Political officials—including our president—are compelled to publicly address the situation. Counterterrorist experts are interviewed and dispense commentary from their informed perspectives. Facebook enables flag filters on profile pictures or the like to exhibit solidarity. Many tap into a concealed reserve of empathy that always seems to manifest whenever white lives are lost.

As a collective we become engrossed, eulogize the fallen, and insert ourselves into the condition of those experiencing the tragedy firsthand. In the midst of consoling white-centered heartache and calamity, a now common refrain is recited as a means to memorialize the victims of wrongdoing while also demonstrating unity against the crick of terror—Je suis, French for “I am.” We were Charlie, then we were Paris, and now the nation has determined that “we” are also Brussels.

And while violence in Europe results in a torrent of compassion and outcry across our mainstream media streams, it’s impossible not to recognize who doesn’t receive the same attention and compassion. Nine days before the bombings in Brussels, Ankara—the capital of Turkey—was hit with a terrorist bombing of their own that killed thirty-seven people and injured hundreds. The month prior, thirty people were slain and sixty wounded in Ankara. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a militant group that terrorizes the eastern quadrant of Turkey as they seek an independent Kurdish state, claimed responsibility for both attacks. Neither explicit act of terrorism generated a fraction of the public attention or mass media garnered by Brussels.

In late January, Boko Haram murdered eighty-six people—including children, burned alive—in Dalori, Nigeria. On March 13, the same day as the second Ankara incident, a mass murder perpetrated by Al-Qaeda at a beach resort in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast, left eighteen dead and thirty-three wounded. Three days later on March 16, two women suicide bombers attacked a mosque in northeastern Nigeria (Maiduguri), killing twenty-four and injuring eighteen. These real-life horror stories neither received an international media blitz nor widespread displays of support.

This isn’t all, however—what’s evident is that our culture’s “selective sympathy” that marginalizes some incidents while highlighting others is based on its proximity to whiteness.

Whiteness isn’t merely a reference to skin color. Whiteness describes a socially and politically constructed concept. It’s a relational description that only exists in opposition to other categories in the racial hierarchy with a European origin used to justify slavery. Whiteness defines itself by demarcating a separation from “others.” Whiteness is both a systemic and systematic ideology based upon beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors that results in unequal distribution of power and privilege that accords a higher regard for the intellectual, behavioral, and inherent value of those defined as “white.”

In addition to whiteness, we must also consider political rhetoric.

Post-9/11, a popular tool of political demagoguery has been to appeal to the fear of the “othered” enemy—Islamic extremism. In recent years, the media and political arena have debited the embodiment of that anxiety from Al-Qaeda and transferred it into the vessel of the latest imagined prime evil: ISIS. By virtue of the angst lodged into the US social consciousness fifteen years ago, terms like “terror” and “terrorism” have become forged with the narrative of whiteness and narrowly redefined to chiefly refer to “Islamic radicalism that threatens or harms white lives.”

The hundreds of brown and black lives lost in Ankara, Grand Bassam, Maiduguri, and Dalori received virtually no “gnashing of teeth” from the West because these episodes fall outside this warped lens. There were two bombings in Beirut that murdered forty-three and injured hundreds a day before the Paris bombings last year. Both incidents were carried out by ISIS. One of these tragedies involved the loss of white lives and received a deluge of condolences and solidarity. The other, perpetrated against Shia Muslims, received a global cold shoulder.

In January of 2015, during the same time of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Boko Haram carried out a massacre in Baga, Nigeria, that claimed the lives of hundreds over the course of five days. One of these tragedies involved the loss of white lives and received a worldwide saturation of attention and sympathy. The other, perpetrated by a terrorist network statistically more deadly than ISIS against African citizens and African military personnel, was the recipient of stark unconcern.

Today, one day after an Easter bombing in Pakistan killed at least 70 and injured more than 300, the trend of media (and social media) bias and diminished distress over terrorism that doesn’t impact white lives still holds true.

Educator, social critic, and activist Zellie Thomas summed up this tendency with the following statements:

Our nation’s preoccupation with terrorism is largely proportional to the way threats or events relate to implied beliefs that, either consciously or subconsciously, hinge on the superiority of white lives and how this prerequisite intersects with Islamic extremism, the designated foe. Thus, there are no je suis moments for lives, regions, or circumstances that don’t fit within this sociopolitical framework.

The fact that ISIS murders more Muslims than any other group is omitted from the narrative many media sources relay in an attempt to nurture the “Muslims are against us” mindset. Despite only a fraction of Muslims worldwide associating with radicalized forms of Islam, this doesn’t deter the splash damage of this narrative breeding cultural antipathy for anyone perceived to be Muslim, including Sikhs.

Humanism is about the inherent and equal significance of all human life. As humanists, let’s take the time to recognize, contemplate, and pushback against this inequitable status quo that continues to be uncritically observed. The value of human life shouldn’t depend on racial affiliation and political agenda.

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  • aren95

    I respectfully disagree. I think the reason for more focus on European countries such as Paris or Belgium over countries like Nigeria or Syria (etc), is that warlike attacks in European countries are far more rare. I think people have become inured to the long term violence in many African or Middle East/Asian countries. Not that this callousness is right – but it is a natural human reaction to frequent painful situations.
    I do agree with your point about how underreporting of the atrocities in Asia/Africa distorts the understanding that the perpetrators are attacking as many/more Muslims – not just “us”. Good point there.

    • NobodyLikesMilhouse

      Anything to ignore the reality of white privilege, eh? *nods lots* mmmhmm, Ignoring black and brown people being killed has NOTHING to do with them being black and brown. Got ya.

      • jared

        “Not that this callousness is right – but it is a natural human reaction to frequent painful situations.” …I think the commenter did address this, somewhat.

        I personally think it’s about 95% white privilege and 5% what aren95 said.

        It’s messed up, whatever the reason.

      • Law Wad

        If news after attacks would report that everyone that died in Belgium was asian, I think the reaction would be the same.

        Based on that I would fix the statement:
        “which response a disaster receives is usually dependent on its relatability to whiteness”
        to
        “which response a disaster receives is usually dependent on its relatability (i.e. location proximity, similar age, similar culture, ..)”

  • Adolf Verloc

    “The fact that ISIS murders more Muslims than any other group is omitted from the narrative. . .” That’s kind of the point. Muslims in majority-Muslim countries eighty-six each other as well as minorities every day. When they kill people in a civilized country, it’s news, kind of like man bites dog.

    • Chris Corte

      Plenty of “civilized” countries are majority-Muslim, too. Right?

  • John D

    I’m just a “regular” guy. I think it is normal to feel more sympathy for groups you associate with. I don’t claim that this is fair…. but I do claim that it is normal.

    It is a bit hard to just get out of bed some days. There are so many problems in the world that it is hard to know how to start to fix them. I feel like I can do more to fix problems that I am familiar with. I am also more motivated to solve problems that happen to groups I more often associate with.

    So, I focus on those I know more…. those I love more… and those I have more in common with. My sympathies, my duty, and my love is expressed in circles. The most valuable circle is my family… then friends… then local community… then country… then world. I think this is just part of my human experience…. and I think this is relatively common.

    I agree that it is valuable for us to understand our biases. It is not realistic to expect us to not have these biases.

    • Rena

      Perhaps more people of minority groups should ban together in greater numbers so their voice takes on volume to be heard. “Black Lives Matter” works because it is frequent and visible. I think more people would pay attention if the reaction to these global events you describe was louder. Where are the minority leaders like yourself to scream about these slaughters when they occur? How can we elevate your voice and supporters like you, Sincere, to bring these atrocities to the world’s attention? We need more minorities in the media, I think. If the media won’t hire you, start your own method to voice what needs to be heard.

  • Ben Johnson

    My first instinct was to throw out the excuse that the Brussels and Paris attacks get more coverage because the local media in those areas are already affiliated with the American media. But thinking on that for a moment, it’s very likely that the reason such a situation exists in the first place is rooted in the unspoken belief that African and Middle Eastern people are less important than Europeans.

    • willknutsen

      That is not correct. ALL nations have a selective sense of mourning for people of that nation. Whenever a plane crashes, each nation that has casualties tells their nation just that, and usually never mention where the others came from.. Also, I read almost daily about slaughter in Africa and the Middle East. So obviously that is being covered. A TV journalist friend of mine in Denmark often has full documentaries broadcast from places such as Mali during the horrors there. And, on the other hand, if one is in an African nation, one does see more media coverage there, which is only natural. Does everyone really expect all Western Media giants to send, at great expense, crews to cover every tragedy? I doubt many in Africa hear about terrorist attacks in, say, the USA. And that is natural, too.

  • Sukhamaya Bain

    I think there are three reasons why the terrorist attacks in France and Belgium get more attention in the USA than those in Africa and the Middle East do. 1) A large majority of Americans have ancestral and cultural ties with Europe. 2) Europe maintains a lot more human rights, at least internally, for which not only the Americans but much of the world has a lot of respect for Europe. 3) Europe maintains a lot better law and order, for which crimes are not as normal there as they are in Africa and the Middle East.

    The fact of “ISIS murders more Muslims than any other group” needs to be looked at more objectively than the naive and politically correct narrative of accusing people of the thought of ‘Muslims are against us’. It is questionable as to how much of the US population thinks that way when they look at this fact. But here are some other reasons that come to my mind. 1) ISIS operates mostly within and in the proximity of Muslims who can be targeted more easily. 2) ISIS seeks a pure Islamic world and they consider the Muslims that are perceived as secular humans to be as bad as or worse than the non-Muslims. In fact, as per Islam, apostasy is a much more serious crime than being born as a non-Muslim. The Islamic punishment for apostasy is death. 3) A lot of non-Muslims certainly feel like, “who cares when the barbarians kill themselves?” It surely sounds bad and is irresponsible; but the reality of the matter is that most Muslim-majority nations, including the so-called moderate ones, have pathetic records on human rights.