The Paris attacks have united people to stand in solidarity against terrorism and to grieve for those who died. On Facebook you see friends putting up an image of the French flag on their profile pictures while Twitter is inundated with #PrayforParis hashtags. Across the globe, citizens have dedicated vigils to honour the deceased. Yet, there were fewer outcries for the terror strikes in Beirut and the recent Mali Hotel shootings.
— BuzzFeed Australia (@BuzzFeedOz) November 14, 2015
The news cycle
News stories are determined by a formula; (1) negativity, (2) cultural proximity (3) involvement of powerful nations, major political figures or celebrities and (4) unexpectedness and unambiguousness. The Paris attacks fit all the criteria. In the news, we saw extensive and detailed coverage of how the strikes happened: footages of people fleeing in horror, personal accounts from witnesses and survivors, and Le Petit Journal’s interview‘s with the innocent pre-schooler which went viral.
We should not just reproach the media for imbalanced coverage. Today’s audiences are no longer passive recipients of news as we can search for our own information and express our views through digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter or blogging. Major monuments around the globe have lighted the Tricolore to honour the victims while thousands have gathered in major cities like London, Berlin, Rome, Istanbul, Melbourne and New York to attend vigils to pay their respects. The New York Metropolitan Opera sang the French anthem as a tribute to the tragedy while 80,000 sports fan in the Wembley Stadium sang La Marseillaise.
We feel more connected to stories if we can relate to them. The Charlie Hebdo shootings made big headlines because journalists can identify with this incident. Secondly, the west saw the violence as an attack on freedom of expression, the right to satire and, overall, the foundations of liberal democracies. However, we paid little attention to the Baga State Massacre on 8 January 2015 where Boko Haram raided villages in the Borno State. The death toll is still unverified, but it is believed between dozens to 2,000 died. Perhaps we do not see how the catastrophe in the unfamiliar location would affect us personally.
In the west, we live in a politically and socially stable environment where we do not often experience terrorist attacks. We associate Paris with positive images: it’s an ideal holiday destination, a romantic city with a rich artistic life coupled with an enviable café culture.
In contrast, we identify countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon with violent political struggles, volatility and overrun with terrorists. So if terror strikes happen in those places, we will not be surprised. According to Global Terrorism Database, Lebanon had more than 200 terrorist attacks last year while Kenya had more than 100. We can relate to Paris because many of us have travelled there thus there is the “this could have happened to me” factor.
In the Paris attacks, the deceased are identified with pictures, age, a small biography and why they visited the city. Even if we did not know them, we feel like we do because they are not nameless victims.
The attacks were random
Since the Islamic State was founded, they have become public enemy No.1. We have heard of their committing atrocities on ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, but it came as a shock when the terrorist group decided to strike Paris. The violence did not specifically target anyone as the victims were just unassuming concert-goers or diners in restaurants. Similarly, the Boston Marathon Bombings in 2013 received world-wide attention because no one expected extremists would strike at an ordinary event like a marathon.
The involvement of a powerful country
Over the years, France has played a strong role in global security, and acts as one of the leading forces in military interventions in troubled states. In the Syrian civil war, France has supplied military aid and facilitated discussions and cooperation between different rebel factions. And before the Paris attacks, France has joined other world powers like the US and Russia to fight the Islamic State.
Our understanding of international warfare has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. We saw Cold War struggles as the liberal Capitalists versus the Communists. But now we interpret post-cold war conflicts as convoluted and chaotic due to the interplay of ethnic and religious tensions, historical rivalries and ‘rogue states’. Brutal conflicts like the Rwandan Genocide, the Sri Lankan Civil War, the First Ivorian Civil War, the Darfur Crisis and the Second Congo War did not get much media attention due to their complex nature. But the Paris attacks were an unambiguous story because the perpetrators were the Islamic State, and terrorism threatens global security. And, the devastation in Paris reminds us anyone can be a target of extremism.