Circle of Empathy

I’m something of a Francophile. In my youth, I ignored American literature in favor of Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert. In cinema, I’ve long gravitated toward French (or at least French-speaking) directors. Last Friday night, a musician was on the radio saying that after his group had played a set at a jazz club in Paris called Le Sunset, they heard about the nearby terror attacks. The group decided it would be wrong to go on for another set. I was stunned, for I remember going to a club called Le Sunset in 1989 – presumably the same one. This slight connection intensified the horror for me.

But I’m uncomfortable with worldwide expressions of solidarity with one victimized country when no comparable solidarity is shown with places such as Afghanistan, Gaza, and Yemen where many more noncombatants have been killed. As it happens, my country is responsible for much of this slaughter, either directly or by providing weapons and diplomatic cover. If anything, that should increase my solidarity with the survivors, not shut it off.

The world has many problems, but one of them is that we are very, very selective in our empathy. To some, we send the message, “Your lives are precious; we stand with you.” To others, our silence sends the implicit message, “Your lives – and those of your children – are nothing to us.” If we truly wish to stop tragedies like the one in Paris on November 13, the first thing we must do is expand the circle of our empathy. If the world were horrified by all attacks on civilians, no matter where or by whom, we might not be mourning Parisians now.

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