Is being shocked at Paris 13/11 and not having heard of Beirut 12/11, okay?

In a hyper-connected world that we live in now, terror attacks draw feverish responses. It is now par for the course that these incidents are used as fodder for advancing one’s political arguments. So the immediate aftermath of the coordinated terror attacks on Paris same a little of everything: expressions of shock, horror and sadness; pointing to the religious identity of the terrorists to buttress their point; a call upon western nations to declare war on terror; and also, a robust challenge to this wide outpouring of grief, asking why this incident should matter more than the incidents in Baghdad, Beirut and Cairo.

The last of these is an interesting recent development, at least in my experience, and there have been many variants of this argument that apply to diverse scenarios – ranging from natural disasters to law and order. Yet, a terror attack is a bit of a unique case. Many have commented extensively on how this is yet another instance of how only #WhiteLivesMatter. Western powers too reacted swiftly – France has already started retaliatory strikes on ISIS. By far though, the most interesting chatter was about about how deaths in the rest of the world matter less; that the world doesn’t mourn when these lesser humans die; that Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have a ‘safe’ button for every attack in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc.

My take – you notice and react to a terror attack in Paris, rather than Beirut or Baghdad, just because of the perceived improbability of the incident. This is the most ‘duh’ explanation, but I suspect it is probably the one closest to the truth. An illusion of safety is broken when you hear of an attack and deaths in a supposedly well-policed place with advanced security measures in place – that drives the shock factor. The instinct driving this response is basically this: “shit, I thought I would be safer walking the streets in Paris, than I would be in Baghdad“. The same holds for Abuja, Nairobi or Delhi. Usually this is just perception and by no means, based on data – but that is the way it is. That is what leads to the shock. In these responses, empathy for victims – howsoever genuine – is strictly secondary. So really, you react to a terror attack, based on your priors of how likely an incident is for a given city/country. To repeat, I am talking perceptions here – and not data-driven reality.

This needs to be seen separate from a state response. What the NATO does in response to this incident, as opposed to similar incidents elsewhere is an entirely different question, and a debate I am deliberately staying off in this post.

The aam aadmi response to a terror attack that doesn’t affect him is exactly as Naseeruddin Shah’s character in ‘A Wednesday’ explained: he thanks his stars he wasn’t hit, and moves on, forgetting all about it, until the next attack. Truth be told, I firmly believe that the fact that I have not been caught in a terrorist attack in Delhi is down to me being just lucky, given the levels of security we have on the ground in crowded markets, hospitals and malls. Some day, my luck will run out, and I should not be surprised.

So – is being shocked at Paris 13/11 and not having heard of Beirut 12/11, okay? I hesitate, but I think the answer to this question is ‘Yes’. And Mark Zuckerberg is being a rational salesman.


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