On Sunday, March 13, an explosion orchestrated by the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) in central Ankara killed at least thirty-seven people and wounded 125 others. It was the third major attack in Turkey in less than six months. After claiming responsibility for the bombing, the TAK “warned of further attacks,” which led Germany to decide to close its diplomatic missions and all the schools it operates in Turkey, as a precautionary measure.
Given the severity of the bombing, many are questioning why it has not received the same kind of attention as the Paris attacks last November, in which 130 people died, or the 2011 Norway attacks, when seventy-seven people were murdered by Anders Breivik. Some have argued that this lack of attention highlights the confines of Western, liberal empathy and its selective outrage to global tragedies.
If social media trends and headline grabbing vigils are a litmus test for what the West cares about, then we were clearly unmoved by what happened in Ankara, less than a week ago. For many of us, it would seem, the bombing was merely one of countless horrors, which happen around the world and barely register on our radar screens.
This attitude is, of course, hardly new. In fact, tragedies that occur in war-torn countries often receive even less attention in the West. For example, almost a year and a half ago, ISIS executed approximately 700 civilians in Syria within the span of two weeks. Reports of the incident in mainstream media were scant and there was little if any public outcry.
Many of us in the West tend to divide the world into two spaces—the privileged one, which we live in and experience first-hand, and the “other,” where tragedies persistently occur. Applying this lens, we often turn a blind eye toward most of the suffering in the world and care only for disasters that plague our privileged spaces.
This explains why, fueled by powerful Western media outlets, the attacks in Paris and Norway spurred a global reaction in which many felt that what had happened there had happened to them. It also explains why a similar response did not come for Ankara’s victims, as well as other devastating disasters that have taken place in non-Western countries.
At the roots of all this is our overwhelming desensitization to the suffering of the Other. Even when we are aware of these tragedies, we simply do not care as much as we do for those that occur in places that resonate with “our values.”
Our imbalanced reactions to these various events suggests that we are comfortable with mass violence so long as we do not identify with its victims or the places where it occurs. But, we imperil ourselves by having this attitude. As the 20th century British writer, George Orwell, suggested in Nineteen Eighty-Four, when we focus our empathy exclusively on those who are “like” us, we create a world blind to its own deterioration.