As Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris unfolded, people around the world tuned in to watch blanket coverage of the events. Facebook activated a feature allowing Parisians to check in as “safe.” By Saturday, millions of people had added a filter of the French flag to their profile pictures to show solidarity with Paris.
The bombings that killed 43 people in Beirut the day before were not met with an international outpouring of sympathy, a discrepancy that was pointed out by many bloggers and journalists, including the New York Times.
For most Lebanese, it came as no surprise that cedar trees were not projected on national monuments around the world, or that late night news conferences were not called to condemn the attack on Beirut. Having experienced 29 bombings since 2011, no one in Lebanon expected that Facebook would create an option to add a Lebanese flag to their profile pictures.
Many on social media asked why, according to so many viral hashtags, we are all Paris, and yet we are never all Beirut or Baghdad? Some pointed fingers at journalists, asking why the media fails to cover violence in other parts of the world (often linking to an article written by a journalist while doing so). Others talked of the “selective outrage,” orientalism and racism that permeates so much mainstream news coverage of the Middle East.
Why the world collectively mourned the victims of Paris and not those in Beirut is likely a combination of all of the above, coupled with the reality that most westerners are simply accustomed to hearing about violence taking place in the Middle East. Western audiences are not, on the other hand, used to hearing about bomb attacks in cities that they consider their own.
Media framing of events does matter. The attacks in Paris drew shock and sympathy because the victims were presented as the innocent bystanders that they were. Western media headlines referred to “terror and confusion” in Paris, and described residents of the city as “seeing chaos and looking for hope.”
Meanwhile, Reuters’ headline about Beirut read “Two suicide bombers hit Hezbollah bastion in Lebanon,” seeming to imply that ISIS hit a military target rather than a street crowded with civilians. The New York Times’ initial headline referred to Burj Al-Barajneh, the location of the attacks, as a “Hezbollah stronghold.” It was then changed to “Hezbollah Area” and later altered to “Deadly Blast hits Crowded Neighborhood.”
Western media often represents the residents of Beirut as plastic surgery-obsessed party-goers, ignoring the fact that the majority of the population lives below the poverty line. However when the story is about bombs, the Lebanese are represented as members of a sect or supporters of a political party, as though this somehow makes them less innocent, and less deserving of sympathy.
This dynamic also plays out among Lebanese audiences. Some Lebanese who expressed sympathy for Paris were silent about the attacks in Beirut. Many likely reacted this way because it is shocking to hear of a major attack in a European capital, or because there was no fast track way of adding a Lebanese flag filter to social media accounts. (Bizarrely, some Facebook users uploaded an image that combined the French colors with the Lebanese cedar, not realizing that this is a flag that dates back to France’s mandate years over Lebanon.)
Many Lebanese who expressed sympathy with Paris were well meaning, likely expressing solidarity with family and friends who live there. After all, if there is any group who can relate to the numb disbelief that comes after a bomb attack, it is Beirutis.
But Lebanon’s deep sectarian divide means that some Lebanese may have felt more sympathy towards French victims than those in Burj al-Barajneh, seeing them as less innocent because of the neighborhood in which they found themselves. These politics of division are as much a source of danger to Lebanon as they are a product of it.
As reactions to the events in Paris and Beirut continue to unfurl, some are calling out those who drew attention to Lebanon’s plight, accusing them of “grief shaming.”
However the discrepancy between the reactions to Paris and Beirut is echoed when the world applauds European countries for welcoming a few thousand refugees while Lebanon hosts 1.1 million. It was reflected when a heartbreaking image of Alan Kurdi lying face down on a beach broke many hearts, while the thousands of Syrian children who roam Beirut’s streets go unnoticed. It is what motivates people to blame refugees for the Paris attacks, rather than trigger sympathy for them as Europeans personally experience the very violence that refugees are fleeing. It is the same double standard that reminds Beirutis that while they may be labeled the Paris of the Middle East, they are not Paris.