I usually save this space for speaking about things like pedagogy, resources and issues in education. These are topics that I am passionate about, but which rarely evoke the kind of emotions and questions that I’m trying to reconcile at the moment, and that undoubtedly will impact on students and staff in our schools.
I was thirteen when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. I still distinctly remember watching the coverage as I got ready for school that morning, and the cloud that hung over everybody as we observed the events that unfolded over the next few days and weeks. This was the first time the notion of terrorism had come into my conscience, and the first time it occurred to me that the world was not entirely safe. In the 14 years since, there have been continual reminders of how vulnerable we are and how fragile human life is. And this week we are feeling this yet again.
As we in the “western world” struggle to comprehend the atrocities committed in France this weekend, we grapple with so many emotions – helplessness, vulnerability, fear, grief, outrage…just to name a few. There are the obligatory statements from those leading our nations and inevitable changes in policy, both at home and overseas, to protect us, to protect our country and to protect those our country counts amongst its closest friends. In our capital cities we light our monuments and buildings in French colours; the Premier of NSW sources a French flag large enough to fly at the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge alongside the Australian flag.
As individuals, it is times like this that we seek connection and solidarity with like-minded people. Some people attend memorial ceremonies and masses. Many people express their grief, confusion, and support for those affected on social media. Facebook creates a “safe” button and allows its users to temporarily superimpose the French flag over their profile pictures. I’ve heard some commentators criticise this as “slacktivism,” but I hesitate to call it that because I think in situations such as these, people (rightly) feel so strongly about a situation that they personally cannot influence, that they look to show their support for those affected in a visible and immediate way.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
At the same time, I feel somewhat unsettled by this phenomenon, because as a society Australia can be unintentionally selective in our outrage (some darker elements of our society are intentionally selective – I choose not to give them air time here).
I am struggling, not because I don’t believe in what this movement is saying, but because of what it is NOT saying. Twenty-four hours before the Paris attacks, 40 people were murdered in an attack in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. On 10 October, at least 95 people were killed when twin bombs were detonated in Ankara, Turkey. People in Syria are facing terrorism on a daily basis, and these are just a handful of examples of the horrific impact of terrorism in our world. Yet, they do not receive anywhere close to the international attention attracted by similar events in the west. We don’t see the red, white and green of Lebanon, the red and white of Turkey or the green, white, red and black of Syria, lighting up our national monuments. Enormous groups of people do not attend mass at St Mary’s Cathedral to pray in unity for the souls of those lost.
Blogger Joey Ayoub, who hails from “a privileged Francophone community in Lebanon” writes a poignant and heartbreakingly honest account of this weekend’s events. To him, it seems that “my people’s deaths in Beirut do not matter as much as my other people’s deaths in Paris.” This seems mortifying to the average, well-intentioned Australian – but it is the message we are sending through omission.
So why, as a society, do we allow ourselves to be so selective in our outrage? Have we simply come to accept that this senseless violence must be a part of everyday life in the Middle-East and other areas of the world?
I guess, in terms of action that individuals can take right now, it starts at home with ensuring our 480,000 strong Muslim population knows they are valued, included and an important part of our society. The worst thing we could do is isolate them because of the vile actions that some people commit under the guise of their religion.
As a country, we need to be visibly united, not just with other western countries, but with the global community at large. We need to show that we care about the innocent people in countries being torn apart by violence, even those who, politically, perhaps have a slightly different world view to our own. I just don’t know how we do this in a way that is meaningful, rather than tokenistic. And that’s what I’m grappling with…people much smarter than me might have some answers – but at the moment I just can’t shake a sense of sadness and helplessness for what’s happening in our world.
So as we #PrayForParis, let’s also make sure we do so as ardently for all of those suffering in the face of terrorism in our world.