The Hardest Problems are the Easiest to Ignore

I was somewhat surprised this morning – though perhaps I should not have been – to find coverage of terrorist attacks in Brussels to be the sole focus of the morning news.

I wasn’t surprised by the news of an attack somewhere in the world – a grim reality we’ve all grown sadly accustomed to – but I was surprised at the intensity of coverage. Broadcast morning news coverage isn’t, you see, my typical source for international news.

Suddenly it was all they could talk about.

Where was this attention when a suicide bomber attacked a busy street in Istanbul over the weekend? Or when three dozen people died in the Turkish capital of Ankara last week?

Even from a wholly self-interested perspective, recent attacks in Turkey seem noteworthy as the EU increasingly relies on Turkey to address the Syrian refugee crisis.

But even as I wondered why Belgium elicited so much more concern than Turkey, I felt the sinking sense of an answer.

Where, indeed, was the coverage of attacks in Beirut just days before the now more infamous attacks in Paris?

On it’s surface, this bias in coverage and compassion seems to most obviously be one of culture, or cultural perspective, for lack of a better word. Perhaps people in France and Belgium are perceived to be “more like us” than people in Lebanon or Turkey. The disparity is essentially racism with an international flavor.

Another theory would be one of newsworthiness – Turkey, Lebanon, and many places in the Middle East regularly suffer from terrorist attacks. In a cold sense of the word, such an attack is not news – it is expected.

Such an explanation, though, has the ring of a hollow excuse. The sort of defense you come up with when accused of something unseemly. And the two ideas – that we show greater concern for those in Western Europe because they are “more like us” and that we are more interested in unexpected events – are not entirely unrelated.

In the States, people of color die every day in our cities. And most often, their deaths go unreported and unremarked on by society at large. A murder in a white suburb, though, is sure to grab headlines.

Neighbors grapple to make sense of the shocking news. Things like this don’t happen here. This is a safe community.

It’s not that suburbs are intrinsically more safe, I would argue, but rather that we as a society, would never allow violence in suburbs to rise to the levels it has within the inner-city. Suburbs are already where our wealthy residents live, but in addition to that privilege, we collectively treat them with more time, attention, and care.

Violence in suburbs and attacks in western cities are shocking reminders that we’ve been ignoring the wounds of this world. That we’ve pushed aside our our responsibility to confront seemingly intractable challenges, closing our eyes and hoping those ills only affect those who are different.

All this reminds me of Nina Eliasoph’s thoughtful book, Avoiding Politics: How Americans produce apathy in everyday life.

Working with various civic groups, Eliasoph notes how volunteers eagerly tackle seeming simple problems while avoiding the confrontation that comes from the most complex issues. In one passage, Eliasoph describes the meeting of a parents group in which one of the attendees was “Charles, the local NAACP representative” and “parent of a high schooler himself.”

He said that some parents had called him about a teacher who said “racially disparaging things” to a student…Charles said that the school had hired this teacher even though he had a written record in his file of having made similar remarks at another school. Charles also said there were often Nazi skinheads standing outside the school yard recruiting at lunchtime.

The group of (mostly white) parents quickly shut Charles down. Responding, “And what do you want of this group. Do you want us to do something.” Eliasoph notes this was not “as a question, but with a dropping tone at the end.”

Afterwards, Eliasoph quotes the meeting minutes:

Charles Jones relayed an incident for information. He is investigating on behalf of some parents who requested help from the NAACP.

The same minutes contained “half of a single-spaced page” dedicated to “an extensive discussion on bingo operations.”

Eliasoph’s other interactions with the group indicates that they aren’t intentionally racist – rather, they are well-meaning citizens to whom the deep challenge of race relations seems too much to handle; they would rather make progress on bingo.

And this is where the cruelest twist of power and privilege come in: it is easy to ignore these hard problems, to brush them off as unavoidable tragedies, to simply shake your head and sigh – all of this is easy, as long as it’s not happening to you.


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