by Guy Walker
Following the most recent Paris attacks, with at least 129 dead, how do we respond to something so tragic? We weren’t there, and most of us won’t be so directly affected. But the streets are aged by massacre, a senescence of speechless sorrow, everything hardened ever so gradually. How to we respond privately, or in collective masses, or in international political theaters? To wholly offer our hearts without coming across as trite and insincere. As gobs of columnists and bloggers clamor to offer their analysis, to sit hunched behind their glowing screens, describing the events with calm succinct reason, to offer answers of blame or justice or patriotism, we feel something missing. As writers, we give an air of egotism, as if yelling in the storm, “Listen to me! I have an alternative point of view!” In the very least, a response mustn’t ever make it about ourselves.
But within hours after the attacks, politicians and pundits used the dead to leverage it to their own squalid advantage of a boorishly flaccid authority. Ann Coulter—more of an aging lurching ghoul than anything else, as she strokes her blonde hair continuously through every interview she’s ever given—called for an end of Muslim immigration into the U.S. entirely. She immediately tweeted about gun control: “too bad there were no concealed carry permits.” Newt Gingrich tweeted similarly. This type of political cynicism is the worst of the lot, turning the deaths of the innocent into puppets of various gross agendas. Even so, in the United States alone, there’s an average 36 gun-related deaths every day, a Paris attack every four days. There’s been 142 school shootings since the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012. One of the true breakdowns in journalism—if you can call it journalism—was when Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera began crying on television because his daughter happened to be at the soccer game when the suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the stadium. Not that the bomb wasn’t significant. But Rivera made the attack about him. The Fox headline was “Rivera’s Daughter Among Paris Attack’s Survivors.” In a stadium of 80,000 people, when not a single person inside the stadium was hurt, when President Hollande himself was in the stadium, this headline is all spectacle, casting a net of egotism among the wounds of massacre.
A day before Paris, there was Beirut: two suicide bombers killed 43 innocent civilians in the suburb of Bourj el-Barajneh. There is no option for a Lebanon flag for your Facebook profile. There is no #PrayforLebanon circling the newsfeed. Before that there was a suicide bombing at a funeral inside the Al-Ashara al-Mubashareen mosque in Baghdad, killing 19. When the U.S. bombed the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, killing 19, there were no mass prayer vigils, no patriotic empathies. At least none that were televised. Is 19 not enough to pray for? What’s the threshold for justified heartbreak? 25? 100? Of course not. The terrorist attacks at the Charlie Hebdo offices last January, killing 12, sent shockwaves around the world, uniting Western leaders in a demonstration of linking arms together. This is not to diminish the horror that the Parisians faced and continue to face, that the heartbreak that the families will likely never overcome, but there is a discrepancy in the attention paid to violence, and especially for the responsibility for that violence. We are a tribal bunch, mourning only for our neighbors with skin or gods similar to ours, in this Sophoclean age of war and political-speak. And people have always excelled at leveraging their pious superiority in a desperate attempt to justify their cruel animality.
When my boss texted me, simply with “You see the news in Paris?” I knew immediately, and with all certainty that it was a terrorist attack. This is the modern age. Before 9/11, ‘news in Paris’ could mean anything from student demonstrations to a sporting event to nudity on the streets. Today, the predictability of terror is itself monstrous. Terrorist attacks, school shootings, cops killing black kids—the new-age ecchymosis of hysteria is clearly far too normal, blending into the fabric of dehumanized misery, like Adorno’s ‘identity thinking,’ no single person is real anymore. It just becomes ’19 dead’, ’43 dead’, ‘125 dead’, like scales of death, weighing out how much we as distant witnesses should feel.
As friends discuss their own analysis of the situation, simply as ‘sick bastards’ and ‘obviously Muslim’ and other barely literal grunts of shock and tribalism, we feel unable to truly feel the madness of it all. For now, there is too much noise. As storms of tweets and retweets fill every last corner of clean air, as only the most thoughtful and humane of your Facebook friends give their profile picture a blue, white, and red filter, (if duck face selfies through French symbolism is human enough) offering empty prayers, counting virtual likes as if they were nods of approval, as we graffiti #PrayforParis across the Internet in a sort of robotic clicktivism, we know deep down this doesn’t actually help. Maybe a little needed communion, but what more of a response can we give on this brittle stage of grief?
Immediately following 9/11, American flags flew from every edifice, every child’s little hands, in an understandable effort to collectively stand strong. But the actual response to 9/11—the military and political response—is what is most worrying. It’s because of our military response that ‘news in Paris’ is expected to be terrorism. It is old news that ISIS would not exist today were it not for the U.S. response, illegally invading Iraq, catastrophically outweighing the death toll and misery seen on September 11th. While initially invading Iraq, Paul Bremer—head diplomat in Iraq—issued Order Number 2, effectively putting 400,000 former Iraqi soldiers out of work, dissolving Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. The U.S. finances Saudi Arabia, oppressing its own and neighboring populations. Saudi Arabia has beheaded more people this year than ISIS has. President Hollande called the attacks an ‘Act of War’, but he also admitted arming the Syrian Sunni rebels. This is no longer news. The scaling up of violence by the State is predictable, monstrous, and grotesque in its ease. Pointing only to religion as the culprit—and religion certainly is a culprit—is merely an excuse for us to not look at our own actions, our government’s own oblique responsibility. As actors of beauty and freedom and war, we have only our own leaders to press upon, to not breed into dogmatisms and systematic violence. As one Charlie Hebdo cartoonist wrote, “Our faith goes to music! Kissing! Life! Champagne and joy!”