The outpouring of global sympathy for the French victims of Islamic State (IS) terrorism is welcome – even if our compassion is selective. Solidarity across borders shows a very human ability to rise above our own parochial concerns and imagine the suffering of others. That kind of cosmopolitan understanding in turn enables global co-operation on common human problems.
There has been much debate this past week about selective sympathy for some victims of terrorism but not others. The media have clearly devoted much more attention to the Paris attacks than to the prolific, savage – and often worse – violence that sweeps other parts of the world every week.
Landmarks around the world, and Facebook profiles, lit up with the French tricolour but not the flags of Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria (facing Boko Haram) or Burundi (where genocide is feared). Facebook activated its “safety check” for Paris but not those other places.
Examples of major terror attacks in 2015
There are reasonable explanations for our selective sympathy. Paris is a global city dear to the world and our human heritage. Many of us have visited as tourists, or are familiar with it from popular culture. It is a free society like ours.
Most of us (in the West) are not as familiar with places in Africa or the Middle East. Attacks on a city at peace, and on everyday activities like sitting at a café or watching a concert, shock us in a different way than attacks in war zones like Syria or Iraq, where we expect such violence. It brings it home. We think: that could have been me.
Western media are shaped by these preferences, and in turn perpetuate them.
Selective sympathy affects political actions
Even so, selective sympathy raises troubling questions. If we are unable to see suffering in other places, it is much more difficult to mobilise political actors to take it seriously.
Democratic governments are often responsive to the preferences of their citizens, even in foreign policy. If Australians care about Paris, it makes it easier for Australia to support France’s response.
If Australians are comparatively uninterested in Lebanon, Nigeria or Burundi, that bumps down those places in Australia’s foreign policy calculus and priorities. This is true of other countries as well, which in turn shapes what is multilaterally possible through the United Nations. It also fuels the sense in some parts of the world that the West cares only for itself.
It is right that Australia, and the world, stands with France against terrorism. But it is also right that we stand with terrorism’s other victims – even in places unfamiliar to us, less dear to us, and whose people do not look like us – who are often more vulnerable than us or the French.
Our focus also should not be limited to terrorism. Other terrible violence afflicts vast numbers of people every day, such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and gender violence.
Poverty kills millions more people every year than terrorism. We do not plaster our newspapers for weeks with images of starving children. We do not light up the Opera House with the flags of innumerable poor countries. To the contrary, we have cut foreign aid, permitting more deaths.
Narrow focus distorts policy decisions
Selective sympathy on terrorism can also lead us into questionable policy choices. Since the Paris attacks, France has understandably been focused on French security. But there is a real risk that making French civilians secure will make Syrian civilians more insecure.
France has now allied with Russia in air strikes. Last time Russia fought an anti-terror war, in Chechnya, it committed war crimes and human rights violations on a Siberian scale. In Syria, it stands accused of indiscriminate air bombardments causing excessive civilian casualties.
Russia is also propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – who has killed vastly more civilians than IS, including by chemical weapons, blowing up neighbourhoods with barrel bombs and prolifically torturing. Assad’s other allies are Iran – a threat to global security – and Hezbollah, a terrorist group. Entrenching Assad is hardly good for Syrian civilians, even if it makes the West safer.
In recent years Australia too has primarily focused on the IS threat at home, such as from returning foreign fighters or the radicalisation of home-grown terrorists. We have been much less concerned about the plight of civilians in Syria. Who we are fighting for makes a difference to how we fight – and who becomes more, or less, secure as a result.
In historical terms, the West is safer than ever. We face no rampaging Hitler or totalitarian Stalin capable of destroying us, just a few gunmen committing the nastiest of crimes.
To go back to the start, sympathy for France is right and human. But we should not let it take all of the oxygen. We should try harder to acknowledge our cultural blindspots, to see the suffering of others and to act for all of humanity in peril. Global justice demands it.