Terrorist Attacks: Why Sometimes People Care — and Sometimes They Don’t

(Photo: Patrik Stollarz, AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo: Patrik Stollarz, AFP/Getty Images)

Shame on you.

If you mourn one, mourn them all.

It’s what we heard on social media this week, when people were denigrated for lavishing sympathy on Brussels in the wake of Tuesday’s attacks, but not for bombing victims in Turkey earlier this month. It’s what we heard in November, when people were humiliated for feeling tortured about Paris but not by the victims in Beirut.

If you’re going to grieve online, you better wear armor.


“I think more and more we’re learning that on the Internet you are involved in a political conversation,” said Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. “It’s not always a place for empathy.”

We rendezvous on social media after each terrorist attack, and the predictable cycle begins: On Twitter, we tuck the solidarity hashtags, #JeSuisCharlie #JeSuisBruxelles, neatly at the end of 140 characters. On Facebook, we apply filters, the French flag, the Belgium flag, over our smiles, our babies, our polished poses. Then come the accusations of moral hypocrisy. What about Turkey, Syria the Ivory Coast? We battle to assign blame for selective sympathy. It’s the media. It’s the West. It’s Donald Trump.

The truth, experts say, is we’re all culpable. But when we vilify one another for the things we do care about, we risk making people less likely to express empathy about anything at all.

What social media illuminates is that we’re inclined to identify with people most like ourselves. More of us have ambled down the streets of Paris than have vacationed on the Ivory Coast. The fact that social media users in the West rush to show solidarity with countries they have been to is obvious. What’s useful about social media is it allows us to see when the groups we identify with are too narrow. In other words, it can force you to do some soul-searching if you only find yourself caring about people who look like you.

The flip side is that when we express empathy online, we also become political targets.

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SOURCE: Alia E. Dastagir