Last week, I wrote about the problem of selective empathy during times of tragedy, citing reactions to the Ankara bombing on March 13 versus reactions to both the Paris attacks last November and the Oslo attacks in 2011. As I argued, our desensitization to the suffering of the “Other” means we pay closer attention to the horrors that occur in countries and places with which we share values or other meaningful commonalities, which is why Ankara received little attention.
It is not the kind of point one wishes to be right about. But, in light of reactions to the Brussels bombings on Tuesday, March 22, in which at least thirty-one people died and nearly 300 others were injured in explosions at an airport and metro station, it is undeniable some lives matter more than others.
This is particularly evident in (but not restricted to) the West. Even in the United Arab Emirates, for example, the famous Burj Khalifa was lit in the colors of the Belgian flag in honor of the victims. Leaders across the world, including from countries like Jordan, Bahrain, and Egypt have also offered messages expressing both sorrow and solidarity with Brussels.
Within the span of the past two weeks, an attack of similar proportions in the Ivory Coast led to the deaths of at least sixteen people; another bombing in Nigeria killed at least twenty-four individuals and wounded nearly twenty others.
Why was the Burj Khalifa not lit in the colors of the flag of the Ivory Coast or Nigeria? What does it mean when—even in countries surrounding Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Turkey—more attention is given to distant tragedies in the West than ones occurring right next door?
At the very least, it suggests people around the world have internalized historically Western narratives about the Other. Many around the globe tacitly accept the dehumanizing idea that some places are inherently more violent than others—an irrational belief that has its roots in centuries of Western antagonism toward the “foreign.”
This reality should not surprise us, however. Relative to public and government reactions to what happened in Brussels, Paris, and Oslo, countries like Jordan, Egypt, and much of the Gulf continue to be noticeably silent about longstanding tragedies in Iraq, Libya, and Lebanon—as if they exist in some other universe.
Questioning why so many of us, in both the Western and non-Western world, care about some places more than others is important, but ultimately we are beating a dead horse. Instead, we would be better served by having a deeper conversation about why Western attitudes toward the Other have become the standard by which so many of us assess the world we live in.