November 17, 2015

HABR | To Beirut, With Silence

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Since the devastating siege of Paris on Friday night, the world has turned upside down in shock and mourning. Throughout the ordeal, Lebanon was still reeling. We mourned not only for our French brothers and sisters, but also for ourselves. We mourned for the terrorist attack just the day before that stole the lives of 43 people, and yet was largely ignored by the entire world. While no Snapchat filter or Facebook picture is going to help anyone, be it in Paris or Beirut, the lack of recognition of the attacks in Beirut is telling. No buildings were lit with the Lebanese flag to mourn our lost people. In fact, most friends I talked to about the incident told me they hadn’t even heard about it at all. All over social media, there had been silence amongst my non-Arab friends, though I am not entirely blaming them, because it is largely the fault of the media. Ironically, most people now know about the attack simply because of articles pointing out the unequal coverage. When we don’t even get a symbolic safety check on Facebook, I wonder: Why? Why shouldn’t our friends and family that care if we are safe? How white do we have to be for our deaths to matter? What does it take for the world to care about our suffering?

Perhaps the reason the attacks have been ignored in the media is that France is a Western country, and therefore  many Americans easily identify with the people of France. Perhaps along with the mourning and pain comes a fear that if terror can strike in Paris, it can strike in the United States. Certainly, France is much closer to the United States both politically and geographically than the Middle East; it is harder to ignore, to “otherize.” Perhaps white lives are seen as more valuable. Or perhaps victims of violence in the Middle East are dehumanized by stereotypes. The common perception of the Middle East as an unstable, volatile, war ridden area of homogenous countries allows this attack to be perceived as nothing out of the ordinary — disregarding the fact that the Middle East comprises many different countries, most of which have long been in a state of peace. In fact, this attack was the deadliest Lebanon has seen since its civil war ended in 1990. This was not an everyday occurrence — it was as big a deal as the attacks were to France — just as shocking and devastating, just as painful.

The lack of coverage is not accidental. It normalizes these attacks, makes them seem typical. It reduces our people and their deaths to statistics instead of humans with lives and stories, and this furthers the belief that we just don’t matter. It is reminiscent of the lack of coverage of this summer’s attack on a Kuwaiti mosque that killed 27 people, and of the following disregard for the beautiful response of a united country because it did not fit in the narrative of the Middle East as a place full of violent, sectarian divides. Among the few headlines Beirut has received, most were phrased to incite sectarian blame by referring to the bombed area a “Hezbollah stronghold” in order to politicize the death of civilians.

When president Obama referred to the attacks in Paris as “not just an attack on the people of France, [but] an attack on the civilized world,” he did not mention the attack that had occurred in Beirut just the day before, nor the suicide bombing in Baghdad that killed 21 people at a funeral — both of which were also perpetrated by ISIS. He has never called ISIS’ terrorist attacks throughout Syria and Iraq an “attack on the civilized world.” The implication of this statement is not surprising. President Obama pushes the trite and racist narrative that we are somehow uncivilized and thus such attacks are commonplace and insignificant. To add to this insult, tweets by an aspiring Republican senator, Everett Stern, rejoiced over the deaths of innocent people in Beirut, wishing for a larger attack to take out Hezbollah while ignoring the fact that the victims had been civilians.

Being half Lebanese and half Syrian, these recent events are personal. To be truthful, I did not imagine that my heart would break for a country I barely remember, and my tears at hearing the anthem at Monday’s vigil took me by surprise. Although I have never been to Syria, and haven’t been to Lebanon since I was a child, I know it could have been my family and me in Beirut. It could have been us as refugees, fleeing Syria from the very same terror inflicted on Paris. If I had died, no one would know. No one would care. It’s an awful feeling to know that my life doesn’t matter because of where I am from — a feeling that fills me with frustration, sadness and rage.

So to those that mourn and pray for Paris, continue to mourn; we mourn for Paris too. But also mourn for those killed in Lebanon and Syria, as I know many in the Cornell community are doing. Mourn for those killed in Iraq, Yemen and Palestine by Western-backed regimes. Mourn the loss of lives of innocent people and extend love and grace to all those who had their lives robbed by evil. Mourn for Paris, but mourn also for those unrepresented because silence fits a political agenda and because their lives are not deemed as important as Western ones. Mourn for those who no longer have a home to defend or land to fight for, for the people who we don’t remember because they are so far away that they can easily be forgotten.

Katy Habr is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell. Comments may be sent to On the Margin runs alternate Wednesdays  this semester.