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Whose shots are heard around the world?

| Thursday, November 19, 2015

Last Friday night, in one of the world’s most peaceful cities, a morbid ticker of increasingly unimaginable carnage came through our news feeds. At least 129 people were killed in Paris, France. Perhaps less apparent to us was the death of over forty in Beirut, Lebanon, the day before. The 18 who lost their lives last week to an ISIS suicide bomber in Baghdad were hardly mentioned. As we examine the American response to the Syrian refugee crisis in light of the recent terror attacks, the nuances of our immigration debate collide with the notorious “empathy gap.” How does ISIS galvanize fear and vulnerability? How do we decide to whom we extend our aid as a country? Do we have the ethical right to make that decision?

Despite their decentralization, it would be a gross understatement to claim that ISIS is simply a descendant of what guerrilla warfare was to the American Civil War. The suicide bombers in Paris demonstrated an advanced degree of deliberation in their attacks. First, Stade de France. The detonation invoked mass panic. Second, Petite Cambodge, a Cambodian restaurant, and La Belle Equipe Bar. Militants indiscriminately opened fire on diners. Finally, Bataclan concert hall. Methodical mass murder ensued as concert-goers were shot one-by-one. ISIS intentionally chose to exact their diverse violence in a city that it considers to be the “capital of prostitution and vice.” In their claim of responsibility, ISIS reminds the world that they are not a group bound by borders, but by ideology. They effectively communicated the idea that no place, not even the City of Light, is safe from their ability to strike in the midst of normalcy. This is only the “first of the storm.”

The role of the United States in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis has grown increasingly salient because of the Paris attacks, as our politicians grapple with the timeless dilemma of balancing the needs of the group and those of the individual. The 1,854 Syrian refugees that the U.S. has admitted since 2012 is a far cry from the number who have been welcomed into European countries. However, at least half of our state governors have expressed their opposition to Obama’s call to admit additional refugees into their states, citing concerns about the one terrorist who held a Syrian refugee passport. Are we willing to gamble American lives to preserve our identity as a nation of hospitality and refuge? Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz advocate respectively for the selective admission of Christians and a ban against Muslim refugees. Still, if our borders were to be closed to Syrian Muslim refugees, would we be handing ISIS disgruntled recruits? Regardless of heightened inspection or discriminatory profiling, where there is a will, there is a way. There are more opportunities today for individuals to exact disproportionate harm. Going forward, we will be forced to reconcile our historical identity as a nation of immigrants with the collective desire for domestic security.

Turning to the response of the citizenry, the Paris attacks were treated as a personal affront to Americans in a way that the Baghdad and Beirut attacks were not, and the explanation is largely psychological. We feel more empathy towards people that we feel are more similar to us. The outpouring of sympathy to Paris was an appropriate expression of solidarity in their mourning. However, the disparity between responses indicates our numbness to violence in the Middle East and may communicate the idea that “Arab lives matter less.” If we are being frank with ourselves and the pervasive stereotypes that have guided our policy-making, we do not quantify devastation merely by the number of human casualties. Despite our country’s diverse identity, we have a narrow prescription for who gets to be an “American,” and the truth is that many groups are left outside this irresponsible definition. Among many other converging factors, underdeveloped education systems have fostered instability in Muslim countries. The extremist actions that have arisen from this instability and the demonization of Islamic groups have resulted in Muslims being the least-favored religious group in the United States. But perhaps it is our own underdeveloped thinking maintaining that extremist actions epitomize an entire religion. How much of our fear is bred from ignorance?

Terrorism begets terrorism. Terrorism may manifest as a retaliatory attack or the internal compromise of individual rights. The expedited entry of our military into Iraq after 9/11 and the subsequent Patriot Act exemplify both responses. The United States does not need to be schooled on the dangers of irrational fear of the unknown. We do not need to repeat the internment of Japanese Americans or McCarthyism to be aware of the gross human rights violations that can occur in the name of increased security. As New Yorker commentator Adam Gopnik remarks, “you can live your lives or your fears, and it is always wiser to live your lives.”

Moreover, walking on eggshells to maintain equally sympathetic foreign policy is not productive. Rather, we should be vigilant that we do not justify violence in any place. At the risk of stating the obvious, we cannot know what do not know. Distinctively, the events that do not make the media’s agenda still happen, whether they occur in Paris or Beirut. We should be wary of what we may be missing in the wake of insular media coverage.

We can continue to express sorrow for the Paris attacks but should be sensitive to our individual and collective responses to international terrorism. We can be aware of our own ethnic or religious stereotypes and how they might influence our views of culpability. Finally, as a place that prioritizes respect for the life and dignity of the individual human person in our responses to mass tragedy, we are reminded of Mother Teresa’s words: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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