There is a distinction between “sadness” and “shock.” Most people have been assuming “sadness” is the motive for the international community’s condolences towards the victims of the recent string of global tragedies, since few other emotional responses seem reasonable. The obvious political implication from this narrative is that only Western lives matter. However, what if shock were the motivation for the world’s responses? Does that still mean there is a double standard?
Consider an analogous situation in your life. Would you expect your friends and family’s response to you being attacked in your own house compared to on a high-crime street late at night to be similar? For myself, being attacked in my own house would be more noteworthy, since I expect my home to be much safer than the dangerous street. This doesn’t mean that my life is valued differently in each situation, and I presume my friends and family would feel equally sad no matter where I am attacked. But surely an attack in my home would garner a greater reaction. This is because “shock” is determined by the violation of an expectation, not by valuations of the tragedy’s magnitude. Although it is unfair, Europe is meant to be a safer and more stable place, so an attack comes at a greater shock. Let us compare France with Lebanon for instance: Wikipedia lists 59 attacks in Lebanon since 2004 to France’s 13. In saying this, I do not mean to compare suffering, but only to illustrate expectations. This theory would also predict that an attack in Japan, where violent crimes are largely non-existent and radicalized demographics are uncommon, would receive wider coverage than France.
When unstable regions are attacked, we understand the tragedy, but we only see it as a representation of an existing trend of violence that we expect to continue. However, when the West is attacked, we are disturbed that such events could even occur. The West sees extremism as something we have already defeated, a remnant of weak governance that our strong democracies have overcome. Even the rest of the world shares a similar view, in which they look to Western political structures and stability as models for theirs. The shock of a Western attack is surprising to all. Does this mean that we are saddened more by destruction in the West? I don’t think so. We can still show equal sympathy to all sufferers.
One may make the argument that the loss of human lives is such an atrocity that all instances of it should be received with the same level of outrage. I find this unrealistic, as the psychological strength of desensitization is too strong for us to will away.
But the West is not completely off the hook. The disparity in coverage also reveals things about the underlying structures of the international system and West. First, it reveals our pessimism. In order to be outraged, we must first be able to conceive of an alternative. But the neglect of Beirut and Iraq underscores the belief that nothing could have been done, that the Middle East is destined for violence, and that only the West has control over history. To shield ourselves from the guilt of this perception, we retreat from the global world so that the daily suffering of others do not faze us. And it is only when this shield is breached, such as through a terrorist attack, that we are forced to confront the world. Even those outraged exhibited this bias; if they were truly as conscientious as they claim, then we would have seen social media bombarded by images of Beirut before Paris. Yet, not even my international or Arab friends did so. Instead, it takes an offensive against the powers that be to motivate cosmopolitanism.
Next, it shows how little the international system is based on rational design and institutions. Perhaps in a more self-conscious world, the same precautions and effort taken in the North would be applied to the South, but the international system has faith that it could rise to the occasion without much institutional force. The problem isn’t in our ideas however, but our institutions. The actions of many would have you believe that cultural shifts are what make or break the world, and that somehow we can end global oppression through heavy introspection. If we want to change the world though, then we must think materially. We must ask what policies and incentives make Beirut expected and Paris shocking, not what ideas do so. International forums for discussions and soft power are not sufficient. Put more bluntly, sovereignty makes us complacent to our allies, and internationalism – the belief that equal, but separate nations can create utopia through cooperation – is innately flawed.
Finally, the disparity in coverage further confirms the West’s dominance. Counterterrorism has not always been a science, and for the longest time, it was governed through intuition. But 9/11 was the beginning of a new regime. Since then, the War on Terror became an innate feature of the world order, in the same way poverty or climate change is. That is to say, terror is not something we think we can realistically defeat, but only manage. So, through the backing of the US, counterterrorism became technical and precise. This showed that only the great powers of the West can fundamentally change the system and realign every single other nation’s goals. This is necessarily frustrating for most. Here lies the motivation of China, Russia, and the developing world: greed for sure, but frustration that they cannot control their own destiny as well.