Thinking and feeling about terrorism

After yesterday’s horrible terrorist bombings in Brussels, the solidarity-inspired profile pictures are popping up on Facebook once again. This reminds me of the controversy around using the French tricolore filter after the Paris attacks back in November 2015. Many people showed their sympathy for the victims in Paris, but did so less visually for those in Beirut just the day before. Are European lives more valuable than Middle Eastern ones? Likewise, do we care so much more about innocent civilians who happen to die in Belgium, rather than their Turkish counterparts in Ankara – or anywhere else for that matter?

Don’t fool yourself. It’s not about valuing or caring more for one group of people over another per se. When we look at these kinds of events in general, most of us will agree that they are equally reprehensible. Whether terrorist strike at a Belgian airport or an Egyptian mosque is, from a rational point of view, just as terrible. Quite naturally, we feel disgusted with all acts of terrorism that take place in the world.

However, we tend to react differently to acts of terrorism that go beyond our rational considerations. That is, we express ourselves more elaborately when we are hit on an emotional or cultural level, too. The Brussels attacks (as well as those in Paris) have outraged us more not because they mostly claimed European lives, but because they breached a part of our identify. Emotionally, they have installed fear into our lives, either by the direct loss of friends and family or, more significantly, by the possibility of something similar happening again. On a cultural level, they were an indirect attack on our way of life, in which we consider ourselves free and safe to go about.

Crying Tintin

As a Dutch person, attacks like those in Beirut or Ankara do not raise severe emotional and cultural distress. Admittedly, I feel more appalled by attacks that involve places and people I am familiar with. For example, I have been to Paris several times and I know a fair deal about its history and culture. Just a few weeks ago I went to Antwerp with my girlfriend, where we nonchalantly praised the cheap and efficient subway system. Knowing that these sorts of places were blown to bits and continue to be targets for terrorists is truly terrifying.


Nevertheless, I still think every loss of life due to terrorism is just as bad. To express explicit sympathy for one tragedy (Paris, Brussels) but not for another (Beirut, Ankara) is not to care more or less in terms of human lives. Instead, it simply shows a higher and completely understandable degree of involvement: emotional, cultural or what have you.

So, if you must, update your profile picture on Facebook to express your sympathy with the recent events in Brussels. Or, better still, think about how we could prevent having to change our profile pictures every few months…

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