It is beyond banal to observe that events like the Paris attacks bring out the best in people.
On Twitter, Parisians used the #PorteOuverte hashtag to invite strangers into their homes. In hospitals and clinics, those spared by violence lined up to donate their blood. And throughout the night, Parisian taxi drivers offered free rides to the city’s terrified citizens.
Of course, events like this also bring out the worst in us: the racism, the xenophobia, the petty point-scoring. Across social media, disdainful voices used the death of more than 120 people to attack everything from Islam and its adherents to #BlackLivesMatter protesters. And, in the days since, French and American politicians have proposed house arrest and electronic monitoring for every person on terror watch lists, an end to the venerable Schengen treaty, and a new, Islamophobic U.S. immigration policy that would admit only Syrian Christians.
Markedly absent in moments like these, however, is deep, global empathy. Not just the kind of in-group empathy that leads Parisians to admit their neighbors into their homes. Or that prompts Francophile Americans to send #PrayForParis into the electron sea. But rather a universal, humanistic empathy. The kind of empathy that leads those feeling insecure – in Europe and the U.S. – to think not just of the people with whom they identify, but of all those burdened by fear and rage around the world.
To think of the refugee, skirting the barbed wire perimeter of Hungary, wondering if she will make it to Berlin. Or the Afghan girl, wondering whether a misguided American bomb will get her before a misguided Taliban soldier. Or the black American teenager, wondering what perceived slight might leave him dead or incarcerated today. Or the Honduran child, crossing the lonely plain of the Arizona desert, wondering how he found himself in the midst of such vast, silent hostility.
Too few, I suspect, will think of these people. Too few will consider that the fear and rage they feel are, in varying measures, the common inheritance of humanity. And too few will stay their hand when leaders beg approval for their own undiscriminating wave of terror – against some ill-defined group of culprits, at home or abroad.
This is not, to be clear, an indictment of France. In this dreadful hour, and in the weeks ahead, the French people will surely comport themselves with more empathy, restraint, and humanity than we could expect from America – where politicians, absent an urgent threat to national security, propose indiscriminate bombing campaigns to great applause.
And yet few – in France, the U.S., or throughout the western world – will see this inhumane spree of violence for what it is: not as a provocation, but an invitation. An invitation for the lucky few who rarely experience fear to better understand the brutish conditions that their leaders help perpetuate. An invitation, for those wondering ‘Why us?,’ to consider the oppressed peoples, within and without the West, who regularly stagger under the same unanswerable question.
Pray, then, for Paris. But pray, too, for us all.