Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Paris, Yes. But Not Just Paris
The public rituals have been happening all weekend here in Chicago and in cities around the country. Candle light vigils. Solidarity protests. Buildings lit up in the French tricolor. Americans stumbling their way through “La Marseillaise.” News media reporting on the latest development, no matter how trivial. Local papers devoting entire sections to the story. “Je suis Paris.” The death of 129 Parisians is shocking; so many young lives in particular snuffed out by terror in a gruesome barrage of executions. The world should stop, take note, mourn, and commit itself to protecting the innocent and to policies that establish justice and peace for all.
It is hard not to notice, however, the contrast to the American response to forty civilians killed by terrorist bombs just a few days earlier in the “Paris of the Middle East” – Beirut, Lebanon. No large public vigils. No in-person Presidential statement from the White House briefing room. Modest news reports below the fold; “here today, gone tomorrow.” No flags unfurled or buildings lit up in red, white, and green. “All of us! For our Country, for our Glory and Flag.” Never heard it sung. Is it because there were 89 fewer civilians who died? Or is something else going on here?
Civil wars and terrorism are parts of daily life in many parts of the world. A few facts tell the sad story:
- an estimated 16,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq thus far in 2015
- over 10,000 Syrian civilians have been confirmed dead in 2015 alone, though difficulties in documentation suggest the numbers are likely to be dramatically higher
- 6,000 Nigerian civilians lost their lives to terror in 2014
- 1,800 civilians died in South Sudan in 2014
- 2,100 civilians in the Central African Republic died in 2014
- 3,700 Afghan civilians died in 2014, included 714 children
- at least 2,400 Yemeni civilians have died as of this Fall
- as of March, 2015, 210,000 Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani civilians have died since 2001
- in the first five years of drone strikes in Pakistan, an estimated 400 to 950 civilians have died, including 170 to 200 children.
Few if any vigils. No lights. Scant news coverage. No anthems.
The numbing regularity of global violence no doubt explains the inability of a society to consistently mark the terrible loss of life. And yet. When an attack takes place in Paris, everyone stops and takes notice. Je suis Paris! It poses the question, “which lives matter more?” Do European lives matter more than Asian or African lives? The crisis in Syria of 4 million refugees in neighboring countries and another 6 million internally displaced persons has been growing in full view for four years. But few noticed until Syrians began crossing the Balkans. Whose lives matter?
Do white lives matter more than brown lives and black lives? How else can we explain the international response to Paris compared to the limited to no response to the tale of terror above? The lighter the skin color of the victims, the more deserving of notice? Perhaps Christian lives matter. Jeb Bush wasn’t willing to join his fellow Republican candidates in calling for a ban on all Syrian refugees. He thinks we should just admit Syrian Christian refugees. Whose lives matter?
When the terrorist attacks on 9/11 happened, many suggested that the world had suddenly changed. It hadn’t. Violence of that magnitude was happening all over the world and had been for years. What was different was that American borders were breached; American privilege was shaken. Violence inflicted from outside our borders isn’t supposed to happen here. What was implied was that it belonged elsewhere. And since 2001 we have been feverishly attempting to push that violence back to the places it “belongs” in our endless “war on terror.” Many of the civilians cited above owe their suffering to that war. Perhaps Paris is simply “too close,” a reminder that our privileged exception from the vulnerability to terror is not all that sure after all.
I joined in prayers for the victims in Paris last weekend. And for those who died last week in Beirut. But I lament the selectivity of our grieving and our outrage. It speaks volumes about the parochialism of our compassion. Je suis Paris. Oui! Mais solidarité avec le monde, aussi!
John H. Thomas
November 18, 2015