Thoughts on Paris and Beirut



I felt terrible, visceral sorrow when hearing about the attacks in Paris and Beirut, both cities I have been lucky enough to visit.

I understand why many American/Western people react more strongly to the attacks in Paris, for various reasons:

  • how many people have gone there or have friends and family who have visited (just count how many friends have changed their profile picture to them smiling broadly in front of the Seine or the Eiffel Tower or in the Louvre vs. how many people could have gone back through their albums and found a selfie or snapshot in Beirut);
  • long-lasting shared historical and cultural ties and similarities (think of how French Enlightenment ideals like liberty and equality were incorporated into the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and how the American Revolution influenced the French one);
  • how the media reports it and how world leaders react (see the following New York Times article headlines:Three Hours of Terror in Paris, Moment by Moment‘ and ‘Obama Calls Paris Events ‘an Attack on the Civilized World‘ vs. ‘Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah Stronghold in Southern Beirut’;
  • and the symbolic significance of the city in our collective imaginations (remember all of the movies, books, poems, even your typically boring and predictable public restroom print featuring the Eiffel Tower, etc, that have brought alive for us the City of Light and made it feel close to us, real, and important)…

… and so that when violence strikes there, we are more apt to react with justified and deep compassion, grief, and outrage.

I absolutely don’t think anyone should feel guilty about or second-guess that initial reaction. But out of respect for the dead and for our own capacity to learn, we need to resist the temptation to view the attack in inaccurate and dangerously “easy” ways (see: “they just hate our freedom and democracy”, “Islam is an inherently violent religion”, “they attacked us so we should fight back in self-defense“, “this just proves the borders should be closed to Syrian refugees” — any of these statements fall apart completely at the slightest critical interrogation, see also here and here).

Somehow, this question I’ve been asking myself is provocative, though I’m not sure why it should be: When we as a country go to war and drop bombs and missiles on others, killing hundreds of civilians as “collateral damage”, what makes us believe it won’t ever touch us? When it is there, why isn’t it called murder or terror, just an unavoidable and acceptable cost of war?

Then it is here. Or a “there” that is familiar and relatable. We are terrified and terrorized. And our cries for the principles we hold so dear — freedom, peace, love for humanity — pour forth. I just wish we were always so vigilant about how fragile those beacons can be. I wish we applied those beliefs universally rather than on contingencies.

I spent too many of my Sunday hours on all the back-and-forth and round-about, and I got sick and disheartened by reading everything. But I’m glad I kept going until I found this piece by Michael Brull in the New Matilda, an Australian news blog. I’ve included an excerpt below that I thought was especially important, but I recommend the entire thing.

“Some may feel it is inappropriate to respond to the murders in Paris with anything but sympathy and expressions of solidarity. Yet Daesh has not risen in a vacuum. For those concerned about preventing such atrocities in future, it makes sense to examine the types of policies that have contributed to its emergence and strength. Two factors that created the crucial preconditions for the rise of Daesh were the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Western support for Syrian jihadis. […]

Our policies helped create the conditions that gave rise to Daesh, and Daesh has made it clear that waging war on it would result in terrorist attacks on the civilian populations of those who have sent soldiers to fight it. This does not mean that no-one should fight Daesh. What it does suggest is that the policies which helped create the conditions that gave rise to Daesh are worth re-examining. And what I would also suggest is that just as those who murder innocent civilians on the streets of Paris may cause murderous fury in response, so might Western foreign policy.”

Also, the New York Times has now addressed the disparity in coverage and global sympathy here (calling it ‘the compassion gap’).

And Vijay Prashad, on, writes:

“French president Francois Hollande reacted to the Paris attacks with tough words: “we are going to lead a war which will be pitiless.” But the west – including France – has already been at war against both ISIS and groups like ISIS. Who else will be attacked? Will the strategy change? Will the western leaders be able to take a longer view than one constrained by the emotional reaction of the present and be able to see past the reflex of more war? Would the western intelligentsia and its leadership be able to acknowledge that some of the strategic choices made in the west have only exacerbated animosities and conjured up a great many threats? It is unlikely. […]

There is no justification here. There is only the recitation of a pitiless history that is buried under official clichés.”

Mostly, this post has just been a way for me to compile the links and articles I’ve found the most clear-sighted and to share them in a coherent way in case anyone else is interested. I cannot conclude these thoughts except to regret that they are not more sympathetic than I wish they could be. I feel hardened that so quickly after murder upon murder, I rush to broad statements, yes political statements, that do nothing to materially change anything, nor offer comfort to anyone’s suffering. (But the least — and yet the most — I can do is follow a conviction that to strive to understand, and to do so in conversation with others, is the only way forward.)

15 November 2015

Update: I’ll continue to add links that I think should be a part of this discussion:

Our Terrorism Double Standard: After Paris, Let’s Stop Blaming Muslims and Take a Hard Look at Ourselves” by Ben Norton on

Terrorism and the Other Religions” by Juan Cole on

14 African Countries Forced by France to Pay Colonial Tax for the Benefits of Slavery and Colonization” by Mawuna Remarque Koutonin on


One Comment Add yours

  1. saratbaker says:

    Thank you, Rebecca. I think you put your finger on it here:” When we as a country go to war and drop bombs and missiles on others, killing hundreds of civilians as “collateral damage”, what makes us believe it won’t ever touch us? When it is there, why isn’t it called murder or terror, just an unavoidable and acceptable cost of war?”

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