The empathy divide: Are we desensitized to certain tragedies?
I saw it immediately in my social media feeds when the news of the Paris terrorist attacks broke out. Photos of Paris. Songs about Paris. Selfies in Paris. Everyone in my feed composed primarily of Filipinos was suddenly French. Je suis Paris. Prier pour Paris. Paris, je t'aime.
It's understandable. Paris is a beautiful city where it seems that the only appropriate activities would be to sip coffee in a cafe or to fall in love. I've been there. I've fallen in love with it and within it. The shock of the recent tragedy is reminiscent of the absurdity of 9/11 in New York. It is definitely heartbreaking and deserving of the world's support.
I'm not taking that away from the nation, its hundreds of victims, and those who are still fighting for their lives. That lovely city has been shaken, a bloody gaping hole left in its portrait that may never be healed by time.
What I am taking away from Paris is the heartfelt universal response to the senseless deaths from their terrorist attack - painting profile pictures red, white, and blue, expressing horror, posting blow-by-blow news, the faces of those broken by the attacks, shattered windows, flowers and candles on sidewalks, testaments from victims and those who survived them.
The outpouring of support has come from all over the world. It was loud enough that the victims of the Beirut attacks that happened just the day before felt they were forgotten. A week after the Paris attacks, a hotel in Mali was attacked in the same fashion as Paris. There was limited media coverage. No one's status said "#PrayForMali." Secretly they might have said, "Where's Mali?" (It’s in Africa.)
Speaking of Africa, in the beginning of the year, armed men attacked a Kenyan university and killed 147 students. 6,347 civilians were killed by the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram in 2014. 200 schoolgirls were also abducted by Boko Haram last year, but none of that deserved any fervent prayers the way Paris did, and the #BringBackOurGirls movement was short-lived.
Taking it locally, 6 years after the Maguindanao massacre, there is dwindling hope that the ones responsible for the murder of 57 people (including 34 journalists) will ever be brought to justice. There is hardly any mention of the SAF 44 less than a year after the Mamasapano incident, never mind that it is considered the biggest loss of government elite force in Philippine history. After the song and dance of finger pointing, no one has been held accountable for the tragedy.
Many of us still ask, "What is the Lumad?" and seem to be fine not knowing about the displacement and death happening to our indigenous citizens in the south.
Two years after Yolanda, we no longer discuss the disaster but many of the affected people have yet to be relocated. It's understandable to want to forget the images of devastation and the rows of body bags, but at what point do our old tragedies become just ordinary things of the past?
The empathy divide
I'm guilty of it myself - shrugging off news of typhoons, local disasters, mass killings, sunken ships, and exploded bombs. Whenever I am asked about deaths in areas with armed conflict, I often shrug it off and say, "Ganon talaga dun, magulo dun. (It's really just crazy there. Just don't go there.)" When I am asked about the news of storms hitting the Philippines, I'm quick to say I don't know anybody in those areas or that it will be fine, as if I were a mind reader and that getting hit by 20 typhoons a year makes the latest one insignificant.
When does a nation or a city become branded as violent or war torn, where deaths due to terrorism or mass murder are somehow commonplace? Even here in the US we have the audacity to say, "Pray for Paris" and the lives lost in that terrorist attack, but not for the 84,000 gun-related injuries and 11,000 gun deaths every year in our own country. The consensus seems to be that nothing can be done about US mass killings like Newtown (20 children, 6 adults), Virginia Tech (32 dead, 17 injured), and Aurora (12 dead, 70 injured). Massacres have become so routine yet lawmakers still seem to believe that their relation to gun control does not exist.
Where do we get the license to call one country's deaths senseless and another's set of deaths typical?
When we can't change a situation, we accept it as how it is so it absolves us from trying to do anything about it. Just like in conflicted areas in our country, dangerous neighborhoods, and in countries where violent deaths have become the norm. It desensitizes us. It allows us to wash our hands and say that it is someone else's problem and to leave us to enjoy our relatively peaceful lives.
Psychology refers to it as dissociation and desensitization. We can't deal with painful events so we distance ourselves from them. We can't change the forces behind them so we remove ourselves from the equation and instead believe that tragedies happen because they are part of life or are somehow expected.
The element of surprise
Paris had a great impact because it was unexpected. No one walks into a restaurant expecting to be shot at. No one attends a soccer match knowing they will be bombed. The probability of going to work in an office building and commercial airplanes crashing into it on purpose was zero until 9/11.
When we think of these tragedies, they all begin like ordinary days and especially in a city as picturesque as Paris, one never imagines masked men or suicide bombers or AK-47s interrupting one's espresso. Not in our wildest dreams do we conceive that our attendance of a rock concert will end in front of a barrel of a gun.
But we expect it from parts of the country with private armies. We expect it the parts of the Philippines with armed conflict and militarization. When foreign friends ask how safe Mindanao is, I cringe and ask them which part, and then just tell them to simply avoid the south.
There is a certain point when we believe that someone is "asking for it," like when they travel to the Middle East, or when they stand up against a violent politician, or get on the bad side of the government. Suddenly, enforced disappearances become okay, massacres and unprepared attacks are shrug-worthy because - well, because what does one expect?
Why do we label some deaths more senseless than others when all victims have mourning families and futures cut short, voids that their siblings, parents and children can't fill? The pain around it is the same regardless of location or circumstance. I doubt a person who has lost a loved one to violence will ever tell you they've gotten used to it or that they expected it because they are where they are.
It's Thanksgiving in the US today - a commercialized celebration of the whitewashed version of what was originally a slaughter. It is the same kind of empathy gap that relegates the death of Native Americans as necessary in order for European settlers to grab their land. As a nation the US has dissociated itself from the truth of the occasion's origins in order to move on and believe it was a happy time. Well, except for the remaining Native Americans.
Maybe if we take the time to recognize each person who has lost something, if we spend time with them and even consider their pain, we can accept that we are one and the same. The reality is that death or serious injury can now happen to each one of us, regardless of our circumstance and location. We are all united when a life is lost by another's hands. Race, color, creed, and country do not divide and exempt us from this fact. Nor should our sense of compassion ever draw lines. - Rappler.com