Stop Gawking at Terrorism

The Best Thing You Can Do for the Victims in Brussels is Pretend They Didn’t Exist

So the first thing I need to say here is that the violence in Brussels is an unspeakable tragedy, and my chest shudders to picture the expanding waves of grief and fear emanating out from the killings and woundings that happened today. It’s easy to focus on the thirty lives lost, more than an entire grade-school class, but dozens more are in the hospital—their families terrified that they’re on the brink of death. The horror of the crime that was committed is literally beyond any individual comprehension or accounting.

So it’s only natural to cast our sympathies and attention to the act of terror whose results we mourn. Because their end is so awful, we picture it so vividly. We empathize and imagine our own life cut short. One moment running late to work; the next an explosion of blood and fear.

The image is so garish we can’t look away. So media supply us with an unlimited stream, self-perpetuating that attention to a raging froth. That rage is channeled to violence, the violence benefits the hawks, the hawks provoke the killers, a storm cycle of more violence ensues.

This is called terrorism.

We might say the right response is to simply eschew a violent response, ignore the provocation. Would that it were so simple. Our national emotions are not under our rational control (nor would we want them entirely to be). Rather we need to tackle the problem one level up, by making a mindful effort to redirect our attention away from terror and towards types of grief that are not so self-perpetuating and self-destructive.

I know that sounds like a cold and overly clinical approach to our reaction to terror. I know there is no way that tomorrow we’ll stop having the urge to pay attention – that it’s unrealistic to expect that terrorism will ever be denied outsized attention by our society.

But I do think it’s worth the effort to acknowledge, when we can’t look away from the attacks, that our attention is at least a vice—that we would prefer to be able to look elsewhere even if right now we’re not able. I think we should do that individually, that we should expect commentators to include it as part of their remarks, and eventually news reports themselves need to emphasize that our attention is the literal object of these murderers desire.

We are giving the terrorists exactly what they want. We owe the victims an attempt to break the cycle and frustrate the their murderers’ intention.

And yet, part of me worries that this approach might be callous. Even if we would be better off looking away, would we really want to be a people who turn our heads from suffering just for calculated reasons?

But, sadly we ignore suffering every day. Today, sixteen thousand children under five died. Picture the parents. Twelve hundred deaths from malaria. In America alone, as many as 30 from the kidney shortage. All of these deserve our attention. The sufferings are just as agonizing as the deaths in Brussels, but these ones are amenable to our focus on a solution.

Perhaps a little intersectionality is what is called for, something that expresses solidarity between the types of grief around us, that demands our moral attention for the problems that could use it, not the ones whose horror stem from it.

Maybe what we owe to the victims of the Brussels killings is the privacy to mourn the ones whose killers used as fuel for their public, hateful act.

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