July 18, 2019

Have We Become Numb to Terrorism?

A girl holds candles at a memorial for the victims of Sri Lanka’s serial bomb blasts. Photo by Mohsin Raza/Reuters

Recently, an unimaginable tragedy befell a country and left the world shocked and dumbfounded. How, people demanded, could this have happened? 

We thought about all that was lost. And some took to their phones to reassure their social media circles that our horror couldn’t be captured by a 280-character tweet.

We were worried. We were outraged. And we were selective.

I’m referring to the social media reaction after the fire at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15. Although, come to think of it, there were apparently recent incidents involving churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, too. 

In a digital age when we can no longer gauge friends’ or neighbors’ values and priorities because we might not often see one another, we’ve taken to social media to peek inside the minds of those who share with us the same country, city or, in some cases, the same home or even the same bedroom. What they post, we assume, is what they value. What horrifies them, we reckon, points to a certain order of priorities. 

A cursory scroll through my friends’ recent social media activity highlights that there were those who posted that they were “devastated” over a church fire in Paris but posted no views about the three churches that were destroyed by fires on March 26, April 2 and April 4 in Louisiana. 

And then, there were those who were so enraged by the Louisiana fires that they posted several calls to action every day, but wrote not a word about the April 21 attacks at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, which, as of press time, had left at least 321 dead and more than 500 injured. 

Sri Lankan officials believe Islamists carried out the attacks from a small, radicalized group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath, with the aid of international terror groups. 

I asked a friend who is well-versed in matters of racism, and who recently had returned from a local cultural equity summit, why more people didn’t express outrage over the Easter Sunday attacks. “To put it bluntly,” he said, “the victims were brown Catholics. Had they been white Catholics who were murdered in European churches on Easter, the world would be singing a different tune.”

All people have priorities, and choose who will receive our praise and our outrage. 

I have deeply-feminist friends who share disturbing stories about misogynists, although they’re more apt to post those stories if the misogynist involved is somehow affiliated with President Donald Trump’s administration. I understand that this is their fight, although I’ve long wished that some of those same friends would share stories about gross violations of women’s rights in Arab countries. 

“When we tune out terror, the perpetrators pay a price because we inevitably begin to normalize what they hope will stand out as new and shocking. Still, our seeming numbness comes at a high price, because once we begin to tune out, we disengage.”

Last month, an outspoken feminist whom I’ve known for over a decade shared my Facebook post about Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian women’s rights attorney who was arrested and sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes. That seems to be one’s fate in Iran today for defending women who remove their mandatory headscarves in public.

I know people who share stories that disparage Democrats at every turn but ignore any reprehensible behavior on the part of the GOP; friends who conveyed horror after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting but were silent after the New Zealand mosque shootings; and friends who won’t stop posting pictures of heartbreakingly caged calves, little fuzzy chicks and anything else for which I miserably overpay at the local kosher butcher. Those users are expressing their values and priorities through every picture, statement, video or meme they post. 

I don’t post much about feminist issues, dirty politicians or caged animals; I post about Iran, because as a Jew born in post-revolutionary Iran and redeemed in the United States, Iran ranks high on my list of priorities, as does Israel, anti-Semitism and anything related to which ayatollah has put his foot in his mouth again.

Am I being unfair, ignorant and narrow-minded in defining how much people care about tragic incidents based solely on the metric of what they post? Absolutely. Yet I believe that what people post serves as a metaphoric loudspeaker in the town square, where we ordinarily would have expressed our outrage and demanded change. 

A woman reacts during a mass burial of victims at a cemetery near St. Sebastian Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka.
Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Last week, one would have thought that the world was coming to a fast, fiery end, given all of the horrified posts about Notre Dame. It was indeed a disaster but I wonder if it’s it simply easier to care about French Gothic architecture that reminds someone of their first trip to Paris than wander down a path of human suffering, including images of  grief-stricken mothers throwing themselves over the coffins of their slaughtered children in Sri Lanka. 

In light of such unfathomable pain, a selfie from 2007 in front of Notre Dame is no doubt an easier image to process — for the person posting it and its viewers. If, as terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins observed in the 1970s, “terrorism is theater,” some of us have begun to leave the program during intermission, while others don’t even bother to show up at all.

It’s no secret that we’ve become inured to terrorism, and during the past few years, we can thank ISIS (or what was once ISIS) with its seemingly random targeting of innocents and its habit of taking credit for every terror act regardless of actual involvement — for hammering the last nail in the coffin of our numbness.

On Oct. 31, 2017, a 29-year-old man who was inspired by the terror group rammed a rented truck into pedestrians and cyclists along the Hudson River in New York City, killing eight people and injuring 11 others. Officials called it the deadliest terrorist attack in New York City since Sept. 11, 2001.

The day after the attack, Amarnath Amarasingam, a Canadian extremism researcher, and Colin P. Clarke, an adjunct senior political scientist at RAND, wrote an article on Slate.com titled “Terrorism Fatigue,” where they asserted that ISIS had lost its most precious political asset: the ability to terrify. 

“By continually staking claim to big and small terrorist attacks, regardless of target selection or casualty count, ISIS has attempted to instill a sense of omnipresent and unpredictable danger. And in the process, terrorism fatigue may be setting in around the world,” they wrote.

When we tune out terror, the perpetrators pay a price because we inevitably begin to normalize what they hope will stand out as new and shocking. Still, our seeming numbness comes at a high price, because after we begin to tune out, we disengage. Or, as Amarasingam and Clarke observed, we reach a point where terror attacks “make the outrageous seem relatively normal. People become numb to the violence. As the once-shocking violence becomes normalized, they are no longer able to muster the requisite outrage or compassion to respond.”

In his forthcoming book, “The Dark Side of Empathy,” Fritz Breithaupt, director of the Experiential Humanities Lab at Indiana University, argues that the more we empathize with one group or one cause over another, the more we risk becoming polarized and eventually deaf to the voices and needs of others. 

In an April 12 interview with NPR, Breithaupt said, “Sometimes we commit atrocities not out of a failure of empathy but rather as a direct consequence of successful, even overly successful, empathy.”

The problem with empathy, according to Breithaupt, is that it’s an ambiguous “riddle” that can fuel extraordinary good deeds, but also can trigger violence and dysfunction. Even terrorists, he argues, exhibit some form of empathy, because they identify with what they see as the plight of a certain group and often will do whatever it takes to fight on behalf of that group’s perceived suffering. 

“It’s no secret that we’ve become inured to terrorism, and in the past few years we can thank ISIS (or what was once ISIS) with its seemingly random targeting of innocents and its habit of taking credit for every terror act regardless of actual involvement.”

Even when we’re taught to empathize with both sides in a conflict, we still exhibit certain loyalties. In the early 2000s, educators in Northern Ireland attempted to instill empathy in Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren through a curriculum that taught both sides of the conflict. The only problem was that after some time, the children heard both narratives and identified with the one that belonged to them. 

Our response to conflict, including terrorism, is complex and dynamic. Consider, for example, that another danger to our seeming numbness is that it doesn’t merely involve the global realm of unaffected spectators, but it may also have an effect on a state’s security apparatus. 

Two days after the attacks in Sri Lanka, The New York Times reported the country’s security forces “were warned at least 10 days before the bombings that the militant group was planning attacks against churches, but apparently took no action against it, indicating a catastrophic intelligence failure.” 

According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. and India warned Sri Lanka of possible Easter attacks weeks before. It will be nearly impossible to prove to what extent, if any, these warnings were not heeded, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a question worth asking, and asking again. The theater show of terror and numbness is apparently set to play indefinitely.

I experienced my own form of numbness to the horror in Sri Lanka, mostly because the attacks occurred on the second day of Passover, during which I refrained from the use of phones and computers as I do every Shabbat. By the time I turned on my phone on the night of April 21, I was already half a day late in processing the horror. 

The same thing happened at the Tree of Life Shooting in Pittsburgh last October, which took place over Shabbat. I was devastated by the killing of 11 people, but also frustrated that I was so late to the game and unable to participate in a certain collective shock and sadness. I didn’t want to be the last to know.

In responding to news of horror, terror and death, I wanted to ensure that I still thought, communicated and behaved with the notion that I’m alive.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.