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Paris, tragedy and apathy

On October 10, 2015, two suicide bombs tore through the crowds at a rally for peace taking place in Ankara, Turkey, killing at least 102 people and injuring over 400.

As students on the Duke in Istanbul study abroad program, our immediate reactions to the horrific bombings in Ankara included sorrow and empathy for the people of Turkey, as well as fear and concern for our own well-being.

However, after our initial shock, the overwhelming response among us was relative apathy towards this bombing. A brutal terrorist attack happened just a few hours away from the city we were fortunate enough to call home for a semester, and we felt apathy.

How could we possibly be apathetic to the deadliest terrorist attack in Turkish history? We have grappled with this in the weeks since then, explaining away our disconnect due to the fact that we aren’t Turkish or that we didn’t know enough about the country’s political history to fully understand the situation.

Then, a month after the Ankara bombings, the world was shocked by a terrorist attack in Paris that left 130 people deadand many more injured. We watched as social media across the West lit up in a powerful and moving show of solidarity. The hashtag #prayforparis was used 10.5 million times within 24 hours of the incident, and Facebook even enabled a feature to allow for the colors of the French flag to be overlaid on top of a temporary profile picture.

Our hearts ached for the victims and their families. To the credit of the Duke Community, a number of response pieces were written in the wake of the Paris attacks that are absolutely worth reading. But, for us, we also struggled to understand the vast difference in responses between the Ankara bombings and the Paris attacks. What made the Paris attacks so different from the Ankara or Beirut or Baghdad attacks? What about the attacks at the hotel in Mali? What about the suicide bombing in Yola, Nigeria?

The complex algorithm that determines where we draw the line between the tragedies that we care about and those that don’t get our attention is dense, confusing and inconsistent. We have constructed a narrative where we often view countries outside of the “Western powers” as being the “other.” Our Turkish friends and peers have told us about how they have become accustomed to being treated like second-class citizens of the world by the West. When the bombing happened, they knew that their problems were theirs to deal with, while France’s problems were the world’s problems. Is it a mere coincidence that France is one of history’s largest colonial aggressors, while the countries where violence doesn’t make the headlines are uniquely more “eastern,” brown and ethnically dissimilar to us?

Equally important is how we, as citizens of a Western society, view terrorism. The kind of attack that happened in Ankara was “expected” because it was in the Middle East. Regardless of the fact that Turkey rarely experiences terrorist attacks of this nature, it is “expected” that a Muslim country will have a violent suicide bombing, because it is, quite simply, a place where violence just happens.

It seems that, instinctually, the words “terrorism” and “terror” are now attached and nearly synonymous to Radical Islam and, sadly, to Islam as a whole. Why is a country's religious background becoming an excuse for a lack of humanity when viewing their tragedies?

What we must realize is that what we call “terror” is a real menace that threatens every innocent citizen of this planet--not just the West. Importantly, our definition of terror looks solely at terrorist groups as being vicious, populist organizations and ignores state-sanctioned violence, particularly when the state fits within the typical depiction of “the West.” Our discourse implies that the state is always the one who fights terrorism, not the one who perpetrates it. As such, our definition of terror depicts us as the sole victims of a threat tailored to the West and the West alone. In reality, the fear that we face is not unlike the fear of those who are closer to the violence, who watch it tear apart their communities and their families day by day.

By buying into the idea of the West versus the rest of the world, we give terrorists exactly what they want and risk demonizing the most harshly affected victims of their terror. Our national perception of Muslims seems to change every time these tragedies happen. We become more skeptical, suspicious and fearful. Only when we deconstruct this narrative can we begin to build genuine empathy.

Global terror is a systematic, historical, ongoing threat against our fellow citizens everywhere. When we begin to accept that, we might be able to stop being surprised and start being outraged. By this, we mean that, yes, we should be outraged at the attacks. But we should also be outraged at the years of unsuccessful Western policy that brought us to this point and the years of ignorance - systematic and individual, conscious and unconscious - that have allowed us the privilege of being surprised in the first place.

Ask yourself, “Why do you mourn for Paris?” It seems so simple. But, examine the question a little deeper, and it all unravels. Why do we mourn for the people of Paris and not the people of the rest of the world? Where do we draw this line? Is there ever an appropriate spot to do so?

Understanding this is not an easy task. Regardless, we encourage you to think about the questions that we have posed. They are questions about which we are thinking every day, as we sat in classes with peers and friends whose country and people were horrifically attacked while we, as the West, stood by, apathetic.

Ashima Chadha, Basil Seif, Grace Park, Kathy Lee, Luis Martinez-Moure, Priyanka Venkannagari, Sarah Darwiche, Caroline Ayanian and Sid Gopinath are juniors at Duke University. Nader Helmy is a junior at Swarthmore College.

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