Ceding Our Discourse to Terrorists

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peace-ParisThree days ago Paris suffered a major terrorist attack claimed by ISIS. It has changed everything. Again.

In New York and cities everywhere, we are back to hyper vigilant.

What is happening? What are we supposed to be seeing that we’re not? I don’t mean strategically, but is there something writ large?

There are people who are convinced that killing is the answer to whatever ails them. What do we – you and me — think we’re going to do to change that? The answer is nothing. We can do nothing to alter that thinking in radicals.

So what are we doing instead? Arguing with people we love and with people we’ve never met. We’re learning how senseless, heartless and clueless other people seem to us on this topic. It’s creating further division. We’re letting the terrorists do this to us.

I hate the terrorism, but I equally hate what it is doing to our discourse. It’s not even discourse. It’s shouting – both real and virtual – over each other. It’s better to be right than open, isn’t it?

There is so much content on my Facebook feed that’s an embarrassment. Knee-jerk, cruel, unintellectual, ignorant, not sourced. American politics, already shameful, has devolved so much since Friday’s attacks it’s like I’m watching waste swirl around before it gets flushed down the toilet.

Yeah, it stinks.

And if the arguments over whether or not to help people escaping these jihadists or whether our government has been exerting enough military power aren’t enough, we have the emergence of the bleeding hearts with their tails between their legs because they weren’t as upset about bombings in Beirut as they were about Paris.

Really?

Yes, it’s obvious we’re all human beings. Loss of human life is loss of human life. But the key here lies in the word “human.” Aren’t we inclined to be more touched by that which is familiar? It’s natural to our human experience.

Paris is not just a random spot on the globe. It’s one of the premier destinations for travel for a reason. It’s the stuff of dreams. It’s so beyond iconic it should have its own word. Who dreams of painting or writing or learning to cook in Beirut? Who honeymoons there? Who has it on their bucket list?

Let’s give ourselves a break. The mourning for Paris has to do with our relationship to it. We don’t value French lives over other lives. Our reactions are largely grounded in the fact that we see ourselves eating at an outdoor café or attending a social event there. A lot of us either have memories of this or it’s something we’ve fantasized about doing. Who does it serve if we apologize for having strong connections to, and therefore strong empathy for, Paris?

I know I’m supposed to intellectually boil it down to caring about all human life the same way, but who does? It doesn’t work that way. Sentimentality rears up. Heart kicks in. After a parent loses a child, each time he or she hears of someone else losing a child it’s like being hit in the gut. Same for a parent who dies, or a spouse. Other people’s similar losses cut you to the core because you know their pain.

Most of us don’t know Beirut’s pain the way we know Paris’ pain. We live in a free society. We’ve not lived under tyranny or with the kind of unrest that has been the norm for so many other countries. It makes a difference in how we respond. It just does. We’re not all humanitarians or activists.

The self-flagellation gets us nowhere. It doesn’t make us safer. It doesn’t quell our fear. Maybe it raises our awareness, which is good, but it largely distracts us from real, meaningful dialogue.

On Friday, just hours before the Paris attacks, my friend Chuck and I were having a post-museum snack at the Gansevoort Market in New York City. Sitting at a community table eating meatballs, we met two women who were visiting from Atlanta. The conversation turned to 9/11 and we told them what it was like in New York that day.

“She’s still afraid when she’s in the subway,” Chuck said, pointing to me.

It’s true. To this day, whenever I’m in a subway station I stay near a flight of stairs when I’m on the platform waiting for the train. Quick escape is my thinking. Probably irrational, but it makes me feel better.

So yes. We’re back to hyper vigilant. We have legitimate fear. It’s disconcerting.

I feel a little like the guy in Paris who plopped down at an outdoor piano and just started playing John Lennon’s Imagine. Hands floating over keys to help him process the despair.

Let’s just feel our feelings.

Arguing and steeping ourselves in guilt isn’t going to help.

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