On March 22, ISIS claimed responsibility for two explosions that tore through Brussels Airport and a local metro station. The attacks left 31 dead and 270 wounded. World leaders reacted over Twitter and Facebook. President Barack Obama addressed the attacks from his historic Cuba visit. It’s more or less the same impassioned reaction we had after the attacks in Paris last year, which left 130 dead.
It is not, however, the same reaction we had to Tuesday’s devastating suicide bomb in an Istanbul airport, which currently has a death toll of 41.
On September 11, 2001, my third grade teacher came back into our classroom frazzled, pale, disoriented. He wheeled in the movie cart, very few words were spoken, we knew not to talk. Slowly parents came and picked up my classmates, the rest of us just sat and watched the tv. No one dared to ask questions, no one chatted, no one laughed. Somehow our eight-year-old minds were all on the same page.
I got on the bus at the end of the day, and one of the older kids said, “You know what happened, right?” I nodded…(but I had no idea.)
I sat scared and quiet the whole 20 minutes home. I rushed off the bus questioning my mom with what happened. To which she responded, “oh sweetie, it’s nothing for you to worry about, just some buildings were crashed into this afternoon by some big airplanes.”
Despite the fear in her voice, I somehow managed to believe her.
Little did I know that those crashes, on that day, in those short hours, would forever change the way I viewed the world.
A war began.
At some point over the past 14 years, “Operation Iraqi Freedom” became the War on Terror. And somehow, 14 years later, we have managed to be in the exact same war. Every day, my newsfeed is filled with Middle East attacks, mass shootings, act after act of terror. My eyes skim right past it, it has become predictable, even expected. ISIS, terrorism, death, destruction, ho-hum. A bombing in Pakistan. A bombing in Iraq. A bombing in Istanbul. This is our normal.
But every month or so, something will stop my thumb from scrolling. When bombs went off in Paris, my Facebook feed blew up with the familiar blues, whites, and reds of the France flag, or when media outlets exploded over the Brussels attacks. And, of course, our hearts went out to Orlando in the wake of its own horrifying shootings.
Sometimes, very specific times, I will respond in shock, horror, and awe. The media will cover it for days, Facebook and Twitter are overwhelmed with messages of sympathy, shock and support. It becomes a topic of conversation over drinks. People take specific actions. For a few days, terrorism becomes real to Americans again.
The contrast in my response and America’s response as a whole raises an obvious question: What is it about those acts of terrorism that cause us to respond differently?
Is it race? Are we able to better relate to “white” Europeans? Because they seem like us and live similar lives to us, we are able to easily relate to them and rally around them. Maybe. It is easier to sympathize and support people that we can identify with, but I’m not convinced this is the only reason.
Perhaps it’s proximity? Paris is quite a bit closer to American soil than Baghdad, after all. At least, it feels that way. Baghdad is 5,988 miles from New York City while Paris is only 3,625 miles away. That 2,363 mile difference could really make a difference in how we react. Maybe. Probably not.
A real factor that has been overlooked quite naturally by both everyday citizens and the media is the frequency of the attacks in the Middle East. Looking at the global terrorism index, a westernized country doesn’t even appear until number 28. No one can deny it, terrorism is more common in the Middle East.
If we’re paying attention, it is just that: terrorism’s commonality in the Middle East has caused the media to very slowly determine that the war is something we were once engaged in, but is now isolated to the Middle East. The “War on Terror” rarely feels like a real threat to us any more. Not until it exits the Middle East. Then we just freak out.
Its frequency has allowed us to become desensitized to it. We are no longer allowing space for a gravitated response to these acts of terror. As a result, those lives, those people that are being affected by it every day, have slowly and unintentionally become insignificant to us. We have dehumanized the Middle Eastern victims. We are best at humanizing terrorism when it happens in predominantly white countries.
But don’t you remember that day, the day when the war began for us? That is the day we should have realized that terrorism was bigger than the Middle East. It was a day we should have realized what it was like to be a country affected by terror. It was a day we should have learned what it would mean to live in a country where bombs drop, buildings fall, and people — people like us — die.
We shouldn’t need the wake up calls from Paris or Brussels to get us to snap out of the “mundane” reports of terrorism in the Middle East. There is nothing mundane about them.