Secondhand Violence

On Wednesday, I was doing some reading for my History of the Modern Middle East class, and I found it annoying that the book kept giving extended play-by-play descriptions of war. For the purposes of my notes, I just wanted to get down to the “important stuff:” what sides fought, what it was over, what side won. The in-between details–which cities were attacked, what weapons were used, how many people died–could be glossed over with the generic acknowledgment that violence happened.

That approach seemed particularly messed up over the following two days with the series of ISIS attacks in Beirut, Paris, and Baghdad.

Following the attacks and the widespread show of sympathy for Paris, some people have been pointing out the Western-centric sense of outrage which mostly ignores the other attacks, as well as non-European victims of violence in general. That point needs to be made. I’m not a fan playing “competitive injustice,” but (social) media bias is real, and racism, xenophobia, and Islamaphobia are all too relevant.

But on a more personal level, I feel strange criticizing people for their inadequate mourning when I’ve spent much of my life numb to secondhand violence.

As a kid growing up in the US with Lebanese parents, I saw the history of war in Lebanon primarily as a tool that my parents could employ in their “when I was your age” shpeel. (“E.g. Isn’t school annoying, Mom?” “No, I found it way more fun than staying at home to avoid shooting.”) Periodic violent outbreaks in Lebanon–marked by my parents turning up NPR for reports about jumble of political actors I couldn’t quite sort out–were primarily a variable in my summer travel schedule. My closest encounter with a bombing was being unable to get to get to a waterpark for my birthday because of it–which felt like the major injustice at the time.

It’s not that I didn’t know that violence is bad, but other things were higher on my emotional radar.

Maybe this reflects my position as a stupid, egocentric American, or maybe just my position as a stupid, egocentric kid. But if I could manage to feel this way about places and people I knew–not just some generic Other–general American apathy is hardly surprising.

Stories, selected news reports, Facebook feeds: we use them to tune into what’s new and habituate to what’s old in the process. Each medium edits our perception of violence, but so do we. We weed out the meaningful “tragedies” from the merely “unfortunate” background noise. From a distance, you can make those distinctions. Violence that’s massive, and constant–not to mention foreign–is unlikely to make the cut.

It’s not right, but it’s also not unexpected. If disproportionate outrage is unacceptable, proportionate outrage is a tough alternative to navigate.

No one teaches you how to feel that level of violence. How can you do the emotional math to mourn hundreds people every day with the same weight you would give to one? If you did it right, would it shrink down your ability to care about anything on a smaller scale: dying pets, break-ups, your GPA?

Because you might say–you might actually believe that all lives matter, but only some of them seem to invoke your tears. It’s never all of them. Maybe it can’t be all of them. There’s only so many tears you can cry and still be able to get on with life.

Yesterday afternoon I found myself tearing up over a stack of papers I was supposed to be grading, unable to convince myself that any of it mattered.

In an attempt at productive procrastination, I pulled out my history reading again. Plugging through a summary of recent Lebanese history, I annotated the events in the book with the ones related to my life. Lebanese Civil War–that’s my parent’s high school and college stories. 2006 July War–that’s the summer after 5th grade when our summer trips started getting more sporadic.

The political context missing from my memories blended with the personal connection absent from the text. I was crying. Crying a cold, gooey personal-political soup. I guess with an ambiguous, amorphous, shifty sense of “home” like mine, what “hits close to home” can shift too.

So I can tell you to declare your solidarity with the people of Paris and Beirut and Baghdad. To bring attention to underreported acts of violence, and be cautious of political responses which treat some deaths as human tragedies and others as statistics. But can I tell you how to feel? If I do, will it matter? I really don’t know.

I just have a lot of feelings right now.

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