Celebrity deaths seem to be what most people remember about 2016. For me, it would probably be all the random terrorist attacks. Maybe I just read too much international news.
A few weeks ago, Syrian forces under President Assad took control of the ancient city of Aleppo in a bloody affair that killed hundreds of civilians and led to the displacement of over 100,000 others.
What makes it worse is the manner of death. These people aren’t being mercifully put away with a swift bullet to the brain. They are being slaughtered in all sorts of sordid ways. So much so that well-meaning Muslims are apparently asking questions like the following:
“Is it permitted for a Sunni man from Aleppo to kill his wife or sister in order to save her from a rape by Shiites?”
That’s utterly insane.
Yet, no one cares. I know I don’t. I think I skimmed the headline while mindlessly meandering through Reddit in search of more meaningful diversions like funny cat memes. The headline registered as a blip in my mind’s awareness and no more. I understood it, but I felt nothing.
Let’s contrast that to a terrorist attack in Germany the very same week where 12 people died as a result of a vehicular terrorist attack. As soon as that happened, social media and news outlets were seemingly ablaze with people posting their condolences and a new variant of the pray for insert-white-city-name-here hashtag.
Why is that? I self-reflected on this for a bit and tried to come up with a list of reasons for this apparent asymmetry in fucks given.
Deviation From Normal
“If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gang banger, will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all, part of the plan. But when I say that one, little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”
This line from the Joker in the Dark Knight perfectly encapsulates the desensitization that our western civilization has to death and violence in the Middle East. We’re so used to it happening there that it simply fails to register any more. It’s “normal”.
However, when something similarly terrible befalls a place like Berlin, we take notice. It’s not supposed to happen there. That spooks us because, if it can happen there, then what’s to prevent it from happening here where any one of us are?
Race and Ethnicity
While I think the deviation from normal justification is a good chunk of it, I can’t help but wonder if things would be different if the people being blown up in the Middle East were white.
It’s easy to dissociate yourself when the people don’t look like you. It’s hard to have empathy. I don’t mean this in a cynical, race-baiting way. It’s just the way our neural circuits are hardwired. Our cavemen forebears probably learned the hard way that engaging with the “other” looking cavemen from other tribes could get you conked in the head and, over time, probably evolved to be more empathetic towards similar looking cavemen.
Too Many Degrees of Separation
We all probably know someone who lives in Germany like that blonde international kid from college who pounded 12 beers a night, 5 nights a week. Maybe we’ve even visited ourselves and thought that one clandestine nightclub that blared deep house music until 7 in the morning was the greatest venue ever.
But Aleppo? We almost certainly will never go there without being eliminated by a drone or at the very least put on some crazy government watch list along with our pal, Edward Snowden. Chances are also solid that we know very few people from that area.
Aleppo and the rest of the Middle East might as well be set in a Tolkienesque fantasy world that resembles nothing like our own. Our sense of connectedness to it and, by extension, the people who live there is tenuous at best.
I tend to favor Hanlon’s razor in things like this, which basically says to not assume malice when simpler human follies like neglect and misunderstanding can be blamed. We are not malicious or callous (I hope), although the end result is more or less the same. We have, however, internalized these things for various reasons.
What makes racial issues like these particularly pernicious is intent. We are all well meaning, but as long as we choose to ignore the reality that our intents don’t matter so much as the actual result, then the world will always tilt towards one set of people over the rest.
The challenge is to rise above that and become conscious and deeply aware of these biases. We should care about humanity in its most absolute sense. It’s a difficult task, but it’s one we can each do. I think we can do better in our compassion.