Return of the Tragedy Hipsters

30 Mar 2016


And so it goes on.



Just over a week ago, Islamist terrorists attacked Brussels - killing 32 people at the international airport and Maalbeek metro station. Belgium declared three days of national mourning and the media descended on the capital. The Belgian government advised against travel to Brussels. The British Foreign Office issued the same advice, putting a Western European capital city, for a day, on a par with Baghdad and Kabul. Heads of State, government and intergovernmental organisations issued statements condemning the attacks and sharing their sympathy with the victims. Monuments across the globe were lit up in the colours of the Belgian tricolour. The public shared their emotions on social media. Twitter hashtags relating to the attacks trended worldwide. #JeSuisBruxelle became the new #JeSuisParis.



And then, as the shock turned to anger and grief, the tragedy hipsters returned. Commentators declared that it was sinister, a sign of Western racism, that there was too much focus on the attacks in Brussels just as there had been three months ago after the attacks on Paris. Misery trolls shamed grieving people for mourning in their own personal way.



Terror attacks take place every day all around the world. Since the attacks in Paris last November, terrorists have murdered and maimed hundreds of civilians in Nigeria, Bosnia, Syria, Iraq, Bangladesh, the United States, the United Kingdom, Somalia, Libya, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Yemen, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Canada, Laos, Chad, Ireland, Mali, Congo, Russia, the Philippines, Tunisia, Niger, Burundi, Thailand, Uruguay, the Ivory Coast and Sudan. Three days ago, another attack took place in Lahore, Pakistan. Five days ago a suicide bomber blew himself up in a football stadium near Baghdad.



The tragedy hipsters believe we see innocent white (although not all those killed were white) deaths as more tragic than others. That is untrue. We really don’t. Every innocent death is a tragedy. Every attack is grotesque. But there are important and obvious reasons why we (the media and the western public ) focus more on what has happened in Paris and Brussels.



Of course we are going to grieve more with people in places we know better, that are closer, have more of a connection with and where attacks take place so rarely. Of course the media are going to focus more on terrorist attacks in Western Europe. It has nothing to do with so-called Eurocentrism or colonialist nonsense. These are just toy words.



Don’t attack the media for their coverage or people for grieving. The attack in Lahore was the top story on BBC and Sky News in the last few days. The attack in Beirut the day before the massacres in Paris was also the top story. I remember because I watched the news report from my Parisian apartment on the morning of the 12th November. One of the attacks in Ankara this month reached the front page of some of the main newspapers. Western journalists do go out and risk their lives to write stories on these atrocities every day.



The problem is that the public are far more likely to read and be affected by a story on an attack that takes place in Western Europe. When a bomb goes off in Lahore and kills over 60 people, the media reports the story. It is then superseded by other stories quite simply because most of the media is a business. It needs to make money otherwise it won’t be able to print stories. Stories which don’t attract much attention can’t be put at the top of the bulletins or people will exit the website or turn the TV off. But why are the public more likely to read such stories?



First, geographical proximity and cultural affinity. Most people who watch the 6 o’ clock news in the UK know Paris or Brussels. France is a top tourist destination - 17 million Britons visit the country every year according to the Foreign Office. These are places that are well-known to Brits because they are close (two hours by train) and because our history and current politics is so intertwined with these countries. It is a natural human response to sympathise with people you know or understand better.



Second, when Brussels or Paris are on shutdown, it affects far more Britons. Britons are more likely to know people living in Paris or Brussels, or are more likely to visit these cities while on holiday. Therefore disruption in these cities creates more disruption for Britons. In addition, they are both business districts and administrative centres that are vital for our economy and political system. These cities are more important to Britain than other cities that are under attack by nihilist terrorists. That is fact, not “racial power structures” or “colonialism.”



Third, attacks in Paris and Brussels are rare - which makes them even more shocking. These two countries are far away from war zones. Turkey and Lebanon border a country in civil strife and so attacks here are to be expected and happen more frequently. An attack in Western Europe demonstrates a worrying level of expertise and planning on the part of terrorists.



Lastly, large scale attacks in Paris or Brussels have a far greater implication for our security services. If terrorists can blow up a Belgian airport, they could do the same in the UK. This adds to the fear factor. So, of course the public are going to focus on attacks in Paris or Brussels more than Beirut or Baghdad. It doesn’t mean that the lives lost in the Bataclan were worth more to us than the ones in Lahore.



I have my own personal reason why I have focused more on the attacks in Brussels and Paris, but especially Paris. On the afternoon of the attacks of 13th November, I flew out to see a friend in Italy. That afternoon I walked past La Belle Équipe to do laundry before catching my flight. On the Saturday evening, when I realised the seriousness of what had happened (I'd been away from the internet all day), I was sitting with my friend in a café in an Italian square reading a newspaper. I saw someone I knew from one of my classes (who had debated a presentation I’d done very recently) covered in blood on the front page. Her best friend was killed.



I saw a map of where the attacks had happened. I live 300 metres away from one of the attacks. A suicide bomber blew himself up in a café 500 metres away. My friends were at the Stade de France and in cafes in the 11th Arrondissement. One friend was supposed to be at the Bataclan. Another close friend was by La Belle Équipe as the shooting started.  My flatmate was on the metro just underneath the Bataclan as the shootings and hostage-taking began. He had just been at our usual bar with friends opposite our apartment in Charonne. Everyone I know knows someone who was directly affected by the attacks.



So I understand utterly the absolute despair and anger at the sanctimonious, smug self-righteousness of people who sneer from behind their keyboards at people in mourning.



To those tragedy hipsters who pontificate: where were you on the night terror struck Ankara or Baghdad or Beirut or Lahore or wherever the next place to be hit will be? Where were your statuses or slogans or pictures of solidarity?



Grief is personal and individual. Do not criticise those who are grieving. Let us mourn the dead without the sneers. Let people grieve in peace.


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