The Empathy Gap Between Paris and Beirut, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In response to David’s piece, a reader points out that yes, no bombings have hit Beirut this year, and throughout the rest of Lebanon there’s indeed been a “relative calm,” as the NYT put it, but:

There have been 23 bombings in Lebanon in the past two years alone, making them tragically commonplace. And that which is commonplace is almost by definition not “news.” In contrast, this was the worst attack on French soil since World War II.

If what is happening in Lebanon is unacceptable, then by all means the people of Lebanon should revolt to remedy it. If their plight demands the world's intervention, then petition it. But don’t whine about not going viral, or not seeing the Lebanese flag on some slacktivist’s Facebook profile pic.

Another reader further contrasts the two countries:

Lebanon has a population of 4.5 million. That’s less than the entire borough of Brooklyn. France, meanwhile, is a country of 66 million. And we’re more familiar with it. I mean, could I start whining about how people don’t understand Brooklyn culture and history, since MORE people actually live there than in Lebanon?

Here’s the most deft response from a reader I’ve seen so far:

In the Paris metro area, 2.1 million were born outside of France, in 40+ different countries. (And this only counts those who were part of the census, so people living there temporarily or undocumented makes this number much higher.) That 2.1 million is about the same as the population of the Beirut metro area.

Also, as we are sadly learning about the identities of the victims, so far they hail from a dozen different countries (and climbing). This amplifies the international ripple effect of family and friends of these people fearing from afar.

This reader looks to a massacre from many years ago:

This isn’t really a racial thing; I’m pretty sure that an attack on Hong Kong would get the same kind of press. Nor does it necessarily pertain to shock value; Mumbai shocked the world in 2008, and it's far more vulnerable than either Paris or Hong Kong is to this kind of thing, due to a well documented history of past religious conflicts in the city and proximity to Pakistan. That didn’t prevent Mumbai from taking the headlines.

Another distinction from a reader turns to the kind of coverage itself:

There was enough media attention, just not any social media attention by the common citizens. Note the distinction and please don’t generalize.

Our final email comes from Samer Bitar, a Lebanese-American reader who travels between the two countries often:

I appreciate David Graham’s piece on the unbalanced reactions to the recent terror attacks in Paris and Beirut, along with the analysis of why such a disparity would exist. He outlines reasonable points citing cultural bias, tourism, and the difference in the sheer numbers of innocent people killed. And though I believe such reporting is important, what I believe is more important is outlining what the results of such a disparity might be—or more importantly, what this represents about the world we live in.

As a Lebanese-American, I felt the same injustice many Lebanese felt with the lack of world support in the aftermath of these attacks. But like most Lebanese, I am accustomed to the way the world treats attacks against us. We are still perceived as citizens of a country mired in violence, and when violence occurs to us, it comes as no surprise.

It’s no secret that even within Lebanon there are many dividing lines drawn on the basis of politics, socioeconomic class, and religion. And these dividing lines play out geographically in Beirut’s neighborhoods, much as might they do in any major city (including Paris). Though neighborhoods in Beirut represent the broad spectrum of Lebanese who live there, the Lebanese still consider them enclaves of one political faction or another.

So is it fair to blame the world for not representing us when Lebanese themselves hold similar bias towards each other?

Furthermore, every day there are Syrian families who live in cities besieged by terror, and the expectation of them has been to simply endure the horror. Most of the world has watched the vicious civil war unfold there and done very little to curb these atrocities or house the millions of refugees seeking asylum. And now we are debating why bias in attitudes exist between Parisians and Lebanese?

After all, it is clearly not a fair world we live in, and the brave journalists who risk their lives to report their stories never get the Sydney Opera house to light up for them. Nor do we interrupt our lives to feel their pain because the suffering in Syria is so relentless and so frequent. There is both an “Empathy-Gap” and “Empathy-Fatigue” when it comes to Syria.

So when the great buildings around the world light up with the colors of the French flag, should we be asking ourselves if Lebanese lives are not worthy of such support? Or should we ask ourselves what this lack of support does to those who live without it?

Not standing in solidarity with innocent victims of violence and using language that frames their suffering as an expected outcome of the places they live in, only emboldens those who perpetuate it.  

And with each hostility against innocent civilians that we ignore the more we enable evil to grow and the more we provide them an ever-cynical population to recruit from. This might be true in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Aleppo, Belem, Bagota, and the list sadly goes on.

I don’t think the families and friends of those injured and killed in these senseless attacks care who lights up their monuments for them. Nothing we do can heal their wounds. And in end the we don’t cry in Arabic or French; we simply cry.

Your own thoughts? Email