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Mourning Paris, Beirut and Kabul

Most western commentators describe ‘the events’ in Paris as entirely different, an attack on our way of life. Which ‘way of life’ is under attack in Kabul and Beirut? 

Wounded man talks to media after suicide attack hits a procession of Shiite mourners in Kabul City, 2013. Wounded man talks to media after suicide attack hits a procession of Shiite mourners in Kabul City, 2013.Demotix/ Pajhwok Afghan News. All rights reserved.Let’s take Obama’s strong statement for granted: What happened in Paris was an “attack on all humanity”. Yes, it was exactly that, an attack on my friends, on my colleagues, on humankind. At the same time, however, it was also a case of terrorist aggression like the others that have become almost quotidian – without the western media seeming to notice. Why can’t we open our hearts to everyone in the world who is a victim of terror, war and violence? I thought that the news could not get worse…

Having reached all my friends and colleagues in Paris, I am slowly beginning to grasp the extent of the catastrophe. I have no words to describe how I feel. I mourn with the victims, their families and friends – and I mourn for all of us. I thought that the news could not get worse. However, the media coverage, interpretations and comments about the attacks in Paris are indeed worse.

In the aftermath of those horrific events, the reactions and ready-made phrases are unbearable: the standard – and predictable – reflexes to terror show that we are more seriously aligned as ‘US’ and ‘THEM’ than we acknowledge. This has a serious political impact. Only a few politicians have managed to avoid the standard reactions and emphasize our responsibility to all humankind to stop the aggression. Only a few politicians have managed to avoid the standard reactions and emphasize our responsibility to all humankind to stop the aggression.

They also intimate causalities, which are so often denied. But most of them mouth off about ‘our values’ which ‘must be defended’ and so on. And so forth... What exactly do we value?

Also repeated a thousand times is: ‘We must defend freedom and democracy against hatred and violence!’ I can't stand hearing that one more time. The attitudes are all the same, all voicing the same chauvinism in a painful demonstration of the incapacity to understand that it is all the same terror. Instead of perceiving the attacks in Paris as part of a series staged in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and many other countries – not forgetting the Russian plane crash in Egypt – most western commentators describe ‘the events’ in Paris as entirely different, an attack on our way of life. Which ‘way of life’ is under attack in Kabul and Beirut?

Logic like this elicits calculable, repetitious responses. There are renewed demands for border closures and (more) war. Once again, Muslims should be expelled and the practice of Islam outlawed. The blame is laid yet another time on a specific, already stigmatized, group. Our double standards when dealing with horror and its victims trumpet our racism.

After Paris

Let’s recall the various interpretations of previous terrorist attacks. Following those in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, terror was viewed as ‘a threat to our way of life’. Following an attack in Istanbul in 2007 it was discussed in terms of the ‘risk of importing terror to Europe’ by admitting Turkey to the European Union. The framework has already been established for all discussions “after Paris”.

Although any perpetrator can shout anything and anyone can publish online declarations that will be ‘authenticated’ by ‘SITE’, a dubious organization – and despite the fact that exactly what drives the killers has not yet been clarified and probably never will be, even the earliest reports presented this narrative.

According to the daily newspaper, Die Welt: “It's about us. About how we live.” I couldn’t bear to read the rest of the predictable, empty phrases that reveal how the writer doesn’t feel himself to be a part of a global society: he is different, privileged. How true. Speculations are often published that turn out to be wrong but help perpetuate myths that fit the frame.

Relevant questions about how secret services failed, especially in France, where surveillance had become standard, are slowly surfacing. One of the first appeared in the Wiener Zeitung. However, the necessary in-depth research remains to be done. Instead, entirely speculative ‘news’ has been spread about a passport discovered at the scene, although it is not clear if such a document could have survived a kamikaze attack, or whether it belonged to a terrorist or to a victim. Is it even real? Speculations are often published that turn out to be wrong but help perpetuate myths that fit the frame – like the story of a female suicide bomber, later revealed to be another victim.

A tweet of solidarity from Afghanistan, written in English, expresses empathy. Because its author experiences such terror every day, she stands with the French people and feels their sorrow. Why don’t we in the west pause and ask ourselves why we don’t feel like her? Or do we? When we hear about terror in Mumbai or Mali do we feel any empathy for those victims? Our media gives no indication that we do.

Other messages of solidarity arrive from Lebanon, Egypt and beyond. But the Lebanese must wonder why so many westerners ignored the fate of the 40 people killed in Beirut just one day earlier. Fortunately, a discussion has been kicked off about bias in facebook’s security check – first introduced after the Nepal earthquake – that was only reactivated for French people.

The same terror is destroying lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Cameroon – and elsewhere. This terror is not, as so many media outlets would make us believe, an attack on ‘us’ or ‘our’ lifestyle. It is certainly not attacking ‘our values’. More likely, it is an attack on our shameful failure to acknowledge that those who are forced to flee terror share our values – and to treat them accordingly.

Refugees seek these shores believing our credo that everyone is equal and deserves the same rights. We should do as we say.

The high-minded observation that “most of the victims of terror are Muslims” also emphasizes difference and must be critically reflected if we don't want to incessantly pit ‘us’ against the ‘other’. How about assuming the humanistic stance of ‘all of us together’?

Lazily repeating stereotyped phrases traps us in dangerous thoughts. In this era of the ‘global war on terror’ and drone assassinations, we shouldn't hazard the reference to ‘our values’. Which values? Inflicting endless war in the face of ‘First World’ economic decline? Accepting the logic with which NATO destabilized the Balkans in the 1990s (see doctrine 1999) – and which with Turkey’s help, is now being applied to Syria?

What kind of values do we demonstrate by conspicuously consuming the precious resources of other countries – instead of acting as the planet’s conscientious custodians? Holding up our unrealized, allegedly exclusive ‘western values’ like a monstrance is religious-mystical wishful thinking – not useful social analysis and commentary.

We cannot afford to ignore the structural causes of this mess and the violence it provokes. If we do not apply the same standards to the whole world, if we accept terror as ‘normal’ anywhere and most of humankind’s deepening impoverishment as ‘destiny’, the growing polarization will be irreversible. Our fate will be never-ending war and terror as the terrorized poor revolt with terrorist means against the war of the rich. I don't want to get used to this prognosis.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.
About the author

Sabine Schiffer is Head of the Media Responsibility Institute (IMV) in Germany. Her research focuses on discrimination in news media and on the impact of media on attitudes and values, especially on children’s values. Modern forms of propaganda include the role 'Enemy' (Feindbild) Islam plays today. With a PhD degree in linguistics, her publications include 'Coverage of Islam in the German Press' (2005) and a comparative analysis of anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic hate speech (2009, with Constantin Wagner, IMV).

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There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.


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