“It could have happened to us”: Does solidarity need proximity?

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“It could have happened to us….” This is what I heard people say after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo last January. And then again, this month after the terrible crash of the German Airbus in France. “It could have happened to us…” Unrelated they were, but nevertheless, two horrible catastrophes that have shocked our nation – or rather, that have shocked nations, in plural. While the strong reactions to the first are linked to our fear of the imminent threat of terrorism, those to the second are related, at least in part, to the absurdity and preventability of the accident.

Different as they are, those two catastrophes have one thing in common and this is how we react. Shock; horror; waves of solidarity; empathy; endless media coverage debating causes, reasons and possible explanations; reckless speculations. People displaying their empathy on social media platforms; commemorative ceremonies; leaders declaring their consternation and marching in the streets…. This is all legitimate of course (even though we must beware of homogenising simplifications such as equating Muslims with Islamists in the first case; or stigmatising depression in the second). Yet one question remains: Why are we so affected by some tragedies and barely notice others?

On Thursday 2 April, 147 people were killed by Al-Shabaab in a massacre that targeted the University of Garissa in Kenya. Killed, because they were non-Muslim. Another horrible attack, since the Kenyan troops joined the African Union Force to fight the militant troop in Somalia. 147 victims, killed in a senseless carnage committed by terrorists.

And yet, we barely notice. No one is in shock, no one horrified, no waves of solidarity and empathy are swamping Facebook, no marches, no commemorations. Only short media coverages, squeezed in between endless debates about depressed pilots or General Election coverage. Only a few minutes is all the media can spare to cover this terrible tragedy. There are barely any debates about the causes and implications of this massacre, about the political situation in Kenya, its exposed location near Somalia, the terrorist situation in East-Africa. It seems that this is all self-evident, since this happened in Africa and we all know that Africa nowadays stands for corruption, terrorism, civil wars and violence, besides of course, poverty and hunger.

No one shouts “We are ‘Kenya’” as we shouted, displayed, and posted that “We are Charlie”, that we stand against terrorism, that we empathise and engage for freedom.

Is it only our personal comfort zones, we are concerned about? Is it because, this “could not have happened to us”? Because we cannot imagine ourselves being in the place of the victims, their mourning families; since this happened far away in an area that is threatened anyway,  an area where violence is on the order of the day, the threat imminent and  omnipresent?

No, “this could not have happened to us”, but does that mean, that we should be less concerned?

It is seems as though, we can only empathise if we can identify with the victims.

Empathy and sympathy should not need proximity. There is no need to be able to imagine ourselves being the victims in order to be shocked, to feel sadness and compassion for others or to mourn. It is not our comfort-zones that count. They should make no difference in our reactions, should not affect how we feel about such horrible, absurd tragedies. People have died. And whether they died in a neighbouring country, whether they died because they took an airplane that we may have taken as well, or whether they have been massacred in a country far away should make no difference. It is equally terrible, horrifying and tragic. Equally absurd and frightening.

And if there was anything serious about us being Charlie, we should feel empathy, solidarity and sympathy. We should care as much about what is happening in Africa than about terrorist threats in Europe. In the end, not only are they linked, but we should never forget that “this could not have happened to us” only because we have been lucky enough to grow up in a place unthreatened by civil wars, violence and extremism.

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