Like almost everyone else, my mind is swamped with images and thoughts about the vicious attacks in Paris on Friday night. With Parisians out for a night on the town, including thousands attending a soccer match, the eight or more terrorists picked so-called ‘soft’ targets in a relatively small, hip area and attacked restaurants, a concert, and parts of the above-mentioned soccer match. Scenes routinely described as ‘scenes of horror’ ensued, with the concert venue the most revolting: terrorists armed with AK-47s fired randomly and coldly at hundreds of concertgoers below them, and then, when about to be eliminated by the police, blew themselves up with suicide vests. The only comparison that comes to mind is the similar scene in a movie theater in Aurora, CO, when the American James Holmes randomly shot and killed twelve theatergoers at a showing of a Batman movie (sadly, no one vowed war on the NRA as a response). But of course, we have a rich field from which to choose for horror in our time: the Russian plane that exploded over the Sinai, killing all 224 passengers aboard; the suicide attack in a Beirut suburb where nearly 40 people were killed; countless suicide bombings and shootings in Afghanistan and Iraq, both still reeling and broken after the U.S. shock-and-awed them in the wake of 9/11; the recent U.S. attack in Kunduz province in Afghanistan, an attack this time on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders. There seems to be no inhibition whatever, in our time, that prevents the murder of innocents in any place and at any time.
What interests me here is the way we, especially we in the western world, respond to these horrors. Our response is, of course, a major part of the calculus of the terrorists who perpetrate such attacks. They know that though death hardly registers in our consciousness when it is ‘other’ innocents who are slaughtered—as, for example, when over 2,000 Gazans, mostly helpless civilians, were killed by the Israeli military in its most recent onslaught on that tiny strip of misery—the death of our people, of white Europeans or Americans in our ‘homeland’, is greeted with terror, with horror, with outrage, with cries that such barbarity must be avenged, must be repaid tenfold. These are exactly the sentiments coming out of France at the moment. France’s president, Francois Hollande, has declared that ‘this is war.’ And realistically, who could blame him? After the attacks on Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, after 1200 or more French citizens have joined the Islamic State in Syria, and now, after this attack, the French are legitimately feeling that they have been specially targeted by the ruthless fanatics who run ISIS. Though the said fanatics would no doubt prefer to attack New York or Los Angeles, they apparently have concluded that Paris is a more reachable, ‘softer’ target. They seem to think that this will discourage Europeans, and somehow persuade them to pull back from their participation in American-led attacks against them in Syria. That this is delusional, that their entire fundamentalist, apocalyptic mode of thinking is insane, does not seem to matter. Or rather, in a certain sense it matters most of all: such people, convinced that the world is ending anyway, seem to figure that dying a little sooner than the rest of us confers glory on them, not least because it will help bring on the apocalypse they yearn for.
But I digress. What I really mean to focus on is how our responses to death, to the sudden death of innocents brought on by the terror of modern weaponry, differ, depending on who does the killing and who does the dying. Consider the response to the recent downing of the Russian passenger liner over the Sinai desert. It was loaded with 224 tanned vacationers returning from some time in the sun at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Initially, and still to this day, Egyptian officials have refused to even call it a terror attack, Ayman El-Muqadem insisting that an explosion could have occurred in several other ways, including “lithium batteries in the luggage of one of the passengers, an explosion in the fuel tank, fatigue in the body of the aircraft, or the explosion of something.” (Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 8, 2015). Increasingly, however, most countries are subscribing to the terrorist theory: that a bomb was smuggled onto the plane and its explosion brought the plane down. Whatever the cause turns out to be, the interesting thing is that almost no western journalists have rushed to Moscow or the Sinai to record tearful reactions from Russians who lost more loved ones than the French (as countless journalists like Katie Couric are doing in Paris). The airliner attack is either treated routinely, as ‘just one of those things,’ or even as something deserved. Russia, after all, remains our chief rival and increasingly our renewed enemy, with its leader, Vladimir Putin, characterized more and more as, if not quite a Hitler, then close. He keeps interfering in our global plans and machinations, such as the coup in Ukraine (right on Russia’s border, it should be noted, and hence well within what we like to call a ‘sphere of influence’ when it’s in our hemisphere), and now in Syria (also very much closer and threatening to Russia than to the United States). So when the Islamic State recently claimed responsibility for bringing down the Russian passenger liner, attributing it to Russia’s recent bombing campaign against them in Syria (and in support of Assad), one could almost hear the ‘served-them-right’ murmurs in the western camp.
The same holds for the recent suicide bombing in the Hezbollah-dominated suburb outside Beirut. We saw evidence of the explosion, we heard a few screams, but underlying all the coverage was, again, a certain suppressed gloating. Hezbollah, after all, has been supporting the evil Bashar al-Assad, our latest candidate for Hitler’s mantle. Those who support Assad, such as Hezbollah and Iran and Russia, become, ipso facto, our enemies. So if even ISIS, supposedly the most mortal of our mortal enemies, suicide-bombs civilians targets allegedly controlled by Hezbollah, then that is a plus in our ledger. Any deaths that come as a result are to be lamented on the surface, perhaps, but secretly cheered.
One could cite countless other terror attacks and a similarly muted response to them on our part. But consider what might be called terrorism but usually isn’t: the bombing of innocent civilians by the so-called “good guys.” The bombing of Gaza by the U.S.-supplied Israeli military comes immediately to mind. What else but terror can one call the relentless campaign of aerial and rocket bombing against a population imprisoned in the most densely populated piece of real estate in the world? What else but terror is the targeting of schools, of apartment complexes, of hospitals? But we don’t call it that, because the victims themselves are alleged to be terrorists or harboring terrorists, and the perpetrators are our close allies and hence experimenters with our own advanced weaponry to carry out what we call “retaliation.” Sadly, the same rationale is used to describe our recent ‘mistaken’ bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz. How could this happen? As with the Israelis in Gaza, we knew or should have known the well-publicized global coordinates of this hospital. And yet, our planes bombed the hospital anyway, and even worse, allegedly attacked wounded patients trying to flee. Doctors Without Borders and several other groups have insisted that this was a war crime: hospitals are supposed to be protected, immune from attack even in war zones. But the main response from U.S. officials has been expressions of ‘regret’ over the ‘mistake.’ And from the U.S. public? Well, it was, after all, ‘those people’ in a war zone, some of whom may have been terrorists themselves. No need to concern ourselves, except a little that our shiny reputation might be tarnished.
So this is what we have. Death is regrettable, and awful, and tragic, and sometimes outrageous, but it usually depends on whose death is at issue. If it’s a relative or close friend or one of our in-group, it hits us very hard, especially if it seems it could or should have been prevented. If death happens to one of ours as part of organized warfare, then it’s also ‘tragic’ but expected, and can be dressed up, in the end, as part of a necessary and noble sacrifice. And if the dead are ‘theirs,’ even if they are civilians and hence ‘innocent,’ we find ways to tolerate the deaths we’ve caused, rationalize them as ‘collateral damage,’ part of the messy business of defeating an evil enemy. But..if death comes as part of an attack on us or our friends, in a manner that we label ‘terrorist’ (notwithstanding the legitimacy of the attackers’ grievances and their relative powerlessness to express those grievances in conventional ways), then it becomes an outrage. Then the killing becomes ‘barbaric’, regardless of the proportion of the lives ‘they’ have ruined relative to those we have ruined. And there seem to be endless ways in which we parse out their barbarity, and our outrage, respecting those deaths. In other words, there are ‘rules’ to which we insist all combatants in a conflict must comply, our clearly-defined rules of war; our clearly-defined rules for the taking of prisoners; our rules respecting which areas or institutions are legitimate targets. That the rules (like the rules regarding money, interest, and bankruptcy) are usually made to favor the more powerful party is mostly ignored or suppressed. Rules are rules, after all. And what terror does to outrage and terrify us is violate the most fundamental of those rules, our rules. Terrorists do not fight fair. Terrorists pick victims at random with no concern for their guilt or innocence, and snuff them out for no legitimate reason. And when the victims are “our” people, then the randomness, the unfairness, the barbarity—regardless of the relative numbers involved—are all considered more extreme, more unfair, more beyond the pale of what we have decreed to be legitimate, than anything we do or could even conceive of doing.
This is, of course, natural to most humans. Those in our group, those on our side (including God), are always considered to be more deserving, more valuable, more innocent than those on the side of the ‘other.’ To paraphrase Orwell, ‘all lives are valuable, but some lives are more valuable than others.’ Thus some deaths deserve to be lamented more than others. Some deserve to be grieved more than others. The useless waste of some lives deserves more attention than the useless waste of others. There may be no way to resolve this dilemma short term. But noticing it—especially before we rush off to scream for overwhelming and merciless retaliation—reflecting upon it, and eventually perhaps coming to see that the loss and waste of every life on every side is painful and deserving of our attention and our empathy, would certainly be worthwhile.