So what exactly accounts for this apparent gap in empathy?
One potential explanation is simple: There were three times more deaths in Paris than in Beirut. Beyond that are a host of other, intertwined reasons. Perhaps chief among them is familiarity. Americans are much more likely to have been to Paris than to Beirut—or to Cairo, or to Nairobi, or to any number of cities that have experienced bloody attacks. If they haven’t traveled to the French capital themselves, they’ve likely seen a hundred movies and TV shows that take place there, and can reel off the names of landmarks. Paris in particular is a symbol of a sort of high culture. Just as a mishap in your hometown hits harder than one two towns over, the average American is likely to relate more closely to violence in Paris than in other parts of the world. There is also a troubling tribal, or racial, component to this familiarity factor as well: People tend to perk up when they see themselves in the victims.
Closely related is a divergence in expectations. In January, Matt Schiavenza argued perceptively in The Atlantic that one striking difference between the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and a roughly contemporary suicide bombing by a 10-year-old in Nigeria was that France is not a country with a failing government or chronic conflict. As a result, attacks there are more shocking.
Many Americans hear “Paris” and think of the Eiffel Tower; they hear “Beirut” and immediately associate it with war. Yet that’s an outdated impression, as The New York Times reported: “While Beirut was once synonymous with violence, when it went through a grinding civil war a generation ago, this was the deadliest suicide bombing to hit the city since that conflict ended in 1990. ... [I]t had been a year of relative calm.”
Beirut, in fact, was once known as the Paris of the Middle East. And while that name is no longer in common usage, there are still similarities between the cities. In the centers, prosperous neighborhoods offer fine dining and glamorous shopping. Farther out, less wealthy residents—many of them immigrants or children of immigrants—live in working-class districts. Paris’s suburban districts, known as banlieues, are heavily populated by Muslim immigrants. “Parisians and tourists rarely visit them, and residents complain that journalists drop in only to report on car burnings and drug shootings,” George Packer recently reported in The New Yorker. “Many suburban residents, meanwhile, never even think of going to Paris.” In Beirut, there are neighborhoods like Bourj al-Barajneh, a suburban, working-class district where the population consists of many Lebanese Shiite Muslims, plus Palestinian refugees and the most recent arrivals, Syrian refugees. It was the Shiites there whom ISIS, a Sunni Muslim extremist group, was targeting last week.