Almost every night during a three-month stay in Paris a few years ago, I stood with my elbows on the black railing of my living room window, smoking poorly rolled cigarettes and looking down at the intersection of four small streets in the 10th Arrondissement. While the 10th is known as bohemian, trendy and Turkish (kebab joints are everywhere), this grouping of street corners feels hidden away, a low-key oasis that maintains the bustling nature of the area without overpowering you. One block is mostly residential, another is lined with cobblestones.
The apartment, which belonged to a family friend, was small yet beautiful and situated so I could see out from all directions — over the dark-bricked eaves of the old Saint Louis Hospital to the north, or down on the patrons of Le Carillon, an unassuming but popular restaurant on Rue Alibert featuring a worn maroon awning and an arrangement of simple tables and chairs out front. It would never appear on any “best of” lists, but it appealed to many locals for just that reason, I believe. It was a homey dive, owned by Algerians. It had a piano. It was simple and decent and just a block away from the Canal Saint-Martin, where I often sat with an English-language book splayed to the world in the hopes that someone would speak to me.
Le Carillon held a special place in my heart throughout my time in France. I didn’t have much money, so I rarely dined out. But I lived vicariously through the people who smoked and drank and ate and talked at Le Carillon from midday until late night, every night. I often fell asleep to the din and clatter of their shouts and plates, and sometimes woke up late enough that it felt like the restaurant had never closed, serving unabated and continuing to do so until the end of time. To me, there was nothing more truly Paris than this scene — smoke curling towards the sky, snatches of conversation in a beautiful, unknowable language (for me, anyway) floating past my ears, the afternoon sun giving way to the burning of street lamps but forever a light on the corner of Rue Alibert, as if the street were a stage. To this day, my memories of that restaurant are nothing short of cinematic, romantic and indelible.
So if word of a devastating terrorist attack on the streets of an historic Western city last Friday wasn’t surprising enough already, I was shocked to see images of my old corner on CNN, illuminated with the lights of sirens, littered with shards of glass, stained with blood. Reports of a shooting at Le Petit Cambodge — a Cambodian restaurant that had not been around when I was in Paris in 2011 — were followed by confirmation that the attack had started at Le Carillon. A dozen people had died and many more had been injured, and yet that was a pittance compared to the carnage of the Bataclan Theater, which I had passed numerous times in my aimless walks around my neighborhood and into different parts of the city. (Paris is, after all, a great place to walk — something that my current city, Atlanta, knows little of.)
The truth is, because of this connection, I commiserate with the pain of Paris more deeply than I do for those who were killed in Beirut by the same terror group just the day before, and for those who have died throughout the Middle East over the last 10+ years since George W. Bush threw his cowboy hat into the region in an effort to depose a dictator and instead destabilized and destroyed the lives of millions.
And it appears I’m not alone: As anyone who used social media last weekend can attest, feeds were cluttered with French flags and Eiffel Towers and words of support and hashtags. In the wake of this outpouring of digital support, a second wave, cresting and crashing more slowly than the first, appeared to point out the hypocrisy of people and media outlets for mourning and talking about those killed in Paris, but not in Lebanon. There is no “Beirut flag” filter on Facebook, for example. And how is what happened in Paris so much worse than any of the other brutal, senseless, horrific attacks that take place regularly in the Middle East and around the globe, which appear to get little coverage (if “coverage” means “shares on Facebook and retweets by celebrities”)?
The reason for that, I think, comes down to a very basic question that I ask myself in times of tragedy: Why not me?
On its face, that seems a selfish question that takes attention away from the real victims and points it at myself. Poor me! What about my feelings? But I ask it in remembrance of others who lost their lives or their hearts in this attack. Why should those people die while I live? What reason was there for this attack to take place on that day, at that time, rather than when I walked by (putting aside the fact that there was no ISIS four years ago)? I refuse to believe that those people deserved such a fate, or that there was a reason for it beyond our understanding, no matter what your perspective. It’s this same frightening concept that scared me out of youthful ignorant bliss on September 11, 2001. That day, only chance spared me or someone I know from dying. Others were not as lucky and were blotted out in an instant; others were not as lucky and now live with the pain of losing someone in the most senseless way possible. But why not me?
For me, it’s much easier to ask this question about the Paris attacks than those that took place in Beirut, or have taken place in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and even England over the years. I have never been to Beirut. I don’t know anyone who has. My understanding of Lebanon — from its geography and culture to its place in the global refugee crisis — is extremely limited.
Does not visiting a place or knowing its people remove me from being a human being who can appreciate that loss is loss and pain is pain and that the anguish of a Lebanese parent, spouse, child or friend is no different than that of a French or American? Of course not. But I must admit, I have no context for those killings. The people who lost their lives there seem far away and their stories seem like just that — stories. I can distance myself from them more easily when I can’t imagine myself as a character within them. And that’s what I do with news stories of mass murder in the Middle East, or tragedy nearer to my home, every day: I block them out, for my own sanity, because operating under the weight of “I could be dead now, if not for a simple twist of fate” is exhausting. Many people feel this way: It’s called a collapse of compassion. And in the Middle East, where mass violence is assured on a regular basis, a collapse is inevitable.
There are more objective (read: less me-centric) ways of looking at this seeming lack of coverage on — just to pick the most recent and salient example — the attacks in Beirut. For one, media did cover those attacks: Many people didn’t care to read about them — and most of the commentary I’ve seen since Beirut became a mainstream story focused on how “no one” was talking about it, rather than how harrowing and sad it was. I thought Jamiles Lartey of The Guardian US summed it up best:
The truth is, people care more about things that happen closer to home, even if those things affect fewer people. And while major media outlets, in some form or fashion, will cover a tragedy or terrorist attack in any part of the world, they know that unless it hits certain benchmarks (were white people killed? was it in the United States or another “Western” country? was it done in a sensationalized manner, i.e. beheading?), people simply won’t read it en masse. I spent years working for a sports news website that had the same problem: People complained about gossip and rumors and sex, yet that’s all anyone ever read. The “serious” pieces, involving original reporting, on important topics, languished. If you’re in the business of generating interest in your website, you have to cover the things people will click on. And judging by the number of articles, tweets and comments shared on Facebook over the past week, people clicked on an awful lot of articles about Paris, more so than any news story I’ve seen in awhile.
Thus, the issue of “coverage” and “caring” becomes a chicken-and-egg problem. People don’t give clicks to stories they don’t feel as personally invested in, and the media won’t give people a chance to have that emotional investment until they demonstrate that they’ll read and share. And then the conversation becomes about media coverage and Facebook check-ins rather than the actual loss of life and propagation of fear.
So here’s my deal, as insignificant as it is for those who have had real things to deal with in the last week: I mourn for all who are lost and have lost. I feel helpless and angry and sad for everyone who is the victim of pointless violence, no matter which “side” they are on, if this world can be said to have sides. Yet I can’t help but think back to that street corner in Paris, where couples and groups of friends and single, lonely book readers sat and passed time as if time did not matter, day after day. I can’t help but remember my walks along the canal, and through the Place de la Republique, and to the supermarket in Belleville where I would speak awkward checkout French with my basket of bread and coffee grounds, which I ate and drank while smoking barely functional cigarettes and looking out at the lights and faces of a city I grew to love. And I can’t help but wonder why those who chose that simple, almost indifferent restaurant that night, of all nights, were the victims, while I was lucky enough to survey that same restaurant with starry eyes and then go to sleep, safe.
That memory, that relationship, makes the loss more real to me. I’m not prioritizing grief — I’m simply feeling it, and then expressing it, the only way I know how. I suppose others, from those who used French flag Facebook filters to passive-aggressive diatribes on all the “other” attacks that went on this week/month/generation, are doing the same.
It’s no one’s place to say what are the right and wrong ways to react to things of this unfathomable nature. I feel like arguing over the semantics of mourning distracts us from the real issues, and helps to put up walls between people when we should be breaking them down.