Many have noted that the deaths of scores killed in a suicide bombing in a Beirut suburb on November 12 did not merit the coverage given the 130 murders occurring the following day in Paris. It’s hard to address that criticism without sounding dismissive of the Beirut victims, but let me give a personal example.
A little girl fell down a narrow well in San Marino, California. I stayed glued to the radio reportage, anxiously asking my dad if she would be safe. She wasn’t. I was broken-hearted. The child was three; I was seven; the year, 1948. And I still remember Kathy Fiscus.
As empathetic as one is, one can’t help experiencing a greater anguish over a tragedy hitting closer to home, or to someone like oneself. Paris represents an iconic something, an association that much of the world — especially the United States — holds with the City of Light. Back in the day, when the diplomatic world spoke French, Ben Franklin was doted upon by the cream of Parisian society; Thomas Jefferson lived there for five years. And, travelled there or not, we’re all steeped in images of the Eiffel Tower, Gene Kelly in An American in Paris, the high fashions of Lanvin and Chanel.
The November 20, The New York Times ran photographs and short bios of a number of the Parisian victims; architect, student, father, music fan. We would feel the same empathy for similar images of the Beruit dead, also students, wives, husbands, children.
How to relate, then, when tragedy hits far away, in an unfamiliar place, to people to whom one has no direct connection? How to connect to all suffering, whether terrorist attack, Ebola outbreak, or meteorological destruction?
Use the lens of the known. If you can imagine dining at a Minneapolis sidewalk café, you can imagine Parisians or Lebanese enjoying the same thing on a late autumn evening. Knowing how tightly you hold your children or loved ones, you can experience, if only a fraction, the suffering of a Syrian refugee father, in tears, clinging to his small children in a cold sea.
We’ve not seen the last of the attacks, and we must find the compassion to reach out beyond ourselves to those who now, and will, need aid and protection.