BEIRUT, Lebanon — How many bombs would have to go off in Paris before the next one would get the same reaction as a bomb in Beirut? Is it the frequency of horrific events that makes us numb to them, or the familiarity of one place over another that determines our response?
These are some of the questions being asked in the wake of two terrible terrorist attacks on two different continents.
Paris and Beirut are linked by history, culture and language. In what many consider to be its heyday — post-independence and pre-civil war — Beirut was commonly referred to as "the Paris of the Middle East.” Now some are cynically, and half-seriously, calling Paris "the Beirut of Europe."
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Yet two attacks carried out by the Islamic State just one day apart have revealed a stark difference in the way violence in these two cities is perceived. Not just by people in the West. Even within Lebanon, there's a difference in attitudes about domestic terror and attacks that happen abroad.
Forty-three people were killed when two suicide bombers detonated their devices in the middle of a busy market street in southern Beirut last Thursday evening. Just a day later, coordinated attacks across Paris paralyzed the city, and left 129 people dead.
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In both cases, the extremist group took the lives of civilians with an inhuman ferocity and without discrimination. But what came next set the two cities apart.
In the hours that followed, world leaders lined up to express their condemnation of the attacks in Paris. US President Barack Obama called them an “attack on all of humanity.” On Facebook, a safety feature popped up to help Paris users find each other, while French flag filters colored profile photos blue, white and red. Vigils were held in capitals around the world.
Lebanon did not get the same treatment.
“When my people died, no country bothered to [light] up its landmarks in the colors of their flag,” wrote Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor, on his blog.
Joey Ayoub, an activist and blogger, argued that race with the issue: “It also seems clear to me that to the world, my people’s deaths in Beirut do not matter as much as my other people’s deaths in Paris.”
That there is inattention from readers in the West to the conflicts raging in this part of the world is hard to refute. Stories about Syria shrink from the page despite daily death tolls that eclipse the Paris and Beirut attacks combined. The same is true of the war in Yemen. This should be cause for reflection.
There are some obvious reasons for this: Events closer to home are always going to stir more emotion. There is also such a thing as “empathy fatigue," according to Marita Sturken, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, "for the parts of the world where violence occurs so frequently."
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But how do we begin to explain that same fatigue at home, within Lebanon, as some contended was the case after these attacks?
One explanation, put forward by Lebanese analyst Emile Hokayem, is that Lebanon’s divisions run so deep that even national tragedies fail to produce shows of unity like they might elsewhere.
“Fundamentally, the Lebanese are deeply divided along political and sectarian lines. This is reflected in their confused reactions to bombings in their own country: Almost everyone condemns them, but sympathy and compassion are hard to come by," said Hokayem, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"Very sadly, every bombing can be rationalized: victims in Dahiyeh since 2013 are paying the price for Hezbollah's Syrian adventures and crimes; the 2013 bombings in Tripoli were deserved because they targeted pro-Syrian uprising mosques; Wissam Al-Hassan ‘had it coming’ in 2012.”
Largely as a result of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, neighborhoods in the capital tend to separate along sectarian lines. There are areas that are almost exclusively Christian, others that are Shia or Sunni. As one Lebanese journalist pointed out in the days after the attacks here, a great number of Beirutis have never set foot in Dahiya, the predominantly Shia southern suburb of the city where the bombs went off.
According to Hokayem, these divides also have an impact on how people in other parts of the world react to attacks in Beirut.
“There is no national solidarity that results from tragedies, so there is little to capture people's attention abroad," he said.
Fares, the doctor, wrote that while the reaction of the world to Lebanon's woes was upsetting, the reaction at home hit harder.
“The more horrifying part of the reaction to the Paris terrorist attacks, however, is that some Arabs and Lebanese were more saddened by what was taking place there than what took place yesterday or the day before in their own backyards. Even among my people, there is a sense that we are not as important, that our lives are not as worthy and that, even as little as it may be, we do not deserve to have our dead collectively mourned and prayed for.”
"In the world that doesn’t care about Arab lives, Arabs lead the front lines," he added.
Hussein, a witness to the explosions on Thursday, said the contrast in reactions to the Paris and Beirut attacks didn't surprise him. "It wasn't treated the same. But we are used to that."
"They are all innocent," he said of the victims. "Nevermind what our religions, Arab or French, we are all human. We have the same pain and the same enemy."
Asked about Lebanon's divisions, he said: "In Lebanon we live separated. Every religion in his own place. I wish when I ask someone about themselves they say 'I am Lebanese' not 'I am Sunni' or 'I am Shia.'"
In the days following the attacks, to redress the balance, some added Lebanese flags to their Facebook profiles. Others went with a combination: the red white and blue of the French flag, with the cedar tree from Lebanon's own in the middle.