Paris vs. Beirut: When “Why” Is Not Rhetorical

Paris vs. Beirut: When “Why” Is Not Rhetorical November 16, 2015


Sometimes, I know, “Why?” is a rhetorical question. Like “How long?” the question “Why?” is a favorite in the psalms: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1). Sometimes we don’t expect or even want an answer to the question. Sometimes “Why?” is just a summary of all the turmoil and confusion within.

But today a “Why?” has been asked that’s been gnawing at me, and I want an answer. On Friday we learned that a coordinated set of terrorist attacks in Paris killed over 125 people. The day before, two suicide bombings in Beirut killed over forty. Having been immersed in work I knew nothing of either attack until, at the end of a long day, I returned to my office and took a look at Facebook.

Paris was everywhere: outpourings of sympathy, of outrage, of shock and grief. Beirut was nowhere; I didn’t hear about it until much later. Inevitably, people have started to notice that and ask “Why?” Why are we moved by violence in Paris, against “people like us,” and not violence against people with whom we don’t identify? Why do we assign more weight to some lives than others? The question arises in the context of our intranational conflict: Why do we need a social movement to convince Americans that Black Lives Matter?

I’ve been asking this question for a long time. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 left 2,977 victims. The nation was justly outraged—enough to be drawn into a war that was perhaps not so just. But where is the outrage for the three million or so children under five who, according to the World Health Organization (Factsheet No. 178) die every year of conditions that are easy and cheap to prevent and treat? That’s 42,000,000 young children dead since 9/11, not counting those whose deaths would have been harder to prevent; if you include those, you can double the number. Malnutrition heaps millions of bodies on top of those. Where is the war fought on their behalf? Where is the outrage?

I teach this stuff. I take these questions seriously; really, I do. And I felt chastened by the Facebook scolding: Where was the shock and horror when I eventually heard about Beirut? Why was it more muted than my response to Paris? Was this another case of White Lives Matter (leaving aside for the moment the fact that all kinds of people died in both places)? Or possibly, White and Historically Christian but Officially Secular and Mostly Agnostic Lives Matter?

We need to ask the “Why?” question, but the versions I’ve seen seem to be conflating two important but very different questions, and in doing so, they’re missing something essential about love.

It’s natural to feel closer to some people than others. To some extent, it’s hard-wired in us: if we didn’t, then parents would continually abandon their children for others that are cuter, smarter, and less of a pain in the ass. Of course, “Paris” doesn’t share my DNA, but my sister who lives in France does, and my first thought was of her safety. But many Americans have been to France; we were taught at least something of French history in school, may have studied the language or at the very least can appreciate that you can’t, as my father says, beat a good Côtes du Rhône. Most of us have little in the way of ties, direct experience or knowledge when it comes to Lebanon. So yeah, many of us can relate to Paris in a way we don’t instinctively connect to Beirut. It’s human nature: to be human is to have limits. The only one who can feel intensely connected to the whole human race at once is God.

I won’t speak for religions I don’t know as well, but Christianity acknowledges our nature and then asks us to transcend it. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was his answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” If I’m obliged to love my neighbor as myself, where do I get to draw the line? (Answer: Nowhere. There is no line.) Yet we learn in the gospels that Jesus had an inner circle. He had a disciple he especially loved, and he loved his friends at Bethany. He was being human, and humans are like that.

The point of love, though, is that it transcends these feelings, which are pretty much irrelevant. Love is an act of will, an act of commitment to the well-being of the other. That is why Jesus’ command to “love one another” isn’t absurd: we couldn’t possibly work up positive feelings for everyone. But we can commit to the notion that the needs of others are my business.

This changes the question. When I consider where my personal resources go as I confront the needs of the world, I find myself making a key distinction. My financial contributions, meagre as they are, go toward those whose material need seems greatest: the poor, the enslaved, the refugees.

But I can’t, and won’t, stop my tears for Paris. Je suis Paris. J’aime Beirut. Even human nature, with a bit of divine help, can manage both of these at once.

Susan Pitchford is a sociologist and member of the Third Order, Society of St Francis. She is the author of The Sacred Gaze, God in the Dark and Following Francis.


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