Why we react differently to European terror attacks

Published: 18 May 2016 at 13:36

Candles and a Je Suis Paris sign

VIEWPOINT: Anglia Ruskin expert looks at the public responses to acts of terrorism across the globe

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by Dr Aldo Zammit Borda, Senior Lecturer in International Law

Terrorism is a threat everywhere. According to a Foreign Policy report, the worst terrorist events in 2015 occurred in Cameroon, Egypt, Iraq, Kenya, Nigeria, Syria and Yemen. 2016 has followed in step, with terrorist attacks occurring in locations as diverse as Belgium, Pakistan and Turkey.

Although most of these attacks led to injuries and fatalities, some writers have decried double standards in the media reporting and have highlighted the “seemingly differing public reaction to bombs in Belgium and attacks in Turkey”.

The nature and prominence of the way the media covers terrorist attacks is a good way to judge the public’s reaction – is the story on the front page or is it hidden away on page 13? But there are a range of other public responses – such as the solidarity rally of world leaders following the Paris attacks, flying official flags at half-mast on governmental buildings and lighting up landmark monuments in the colours of the national flag of the afflicted country.

Activity on social media, such as using Twitter hashtags and changing Facebook profile pictures to show solidarity is another potent indicator of the public’s response.

But all of the above indicators have to be approached with a degree of caution. Assessing the public response to an outrage by monitoring social media, for example, raises questions of computer accessibility. Not only that, but not everyone necessarily perceives social media as the appropriate medium for public expressions of solidarity.

Seeking common ground

With respect to the seemingly differing Western public responses to terrorist events across the globe, several factors may play a role, including the spread and availability of journalists. Others have suggested a racist narrative. Will Gore, writing in The Independent about the attacks in Brussels in March, concluded that there is a “fundamentally racist narrative at play … we value white European lives more than those of dark-skinned people beyond Europe’s borders”.

But another factor is the common cultural and historical heritage of the West which may appear heightened in times of adversity. As an article in The Atlantic suggested: “Americans are much more likely to have been to Paris than to Beirut – or to Cairo, or to Nairobi, or to any number of cities that have experienced bloody attacks. If they haven’t travelled to the French capital themselves, they’ve likely seen a hundred movies and TV shows that take place there, and can reel off the names of landmarks. Paris in particular is a symbol of a sort of high culture.” For Americans, read most audiences in the West.

By contrast, writing in the aftermath of the Ankara terrorist attacks, Turkey-based journalist Liz Cookman notes that the country “continues to teeter on the line between East and West, making it hard to understand – a Muslim country with increasingly conservative values that also has its sights set on the EU”.

‘Otherness’

This lack of understanding of non-Western countries may in part, as Cookman suggests, be down to ignorance. But it may also be related to what Edward Said refers to as “Otherness”. Said argues that Westerners imagine the Orient as an exotic and strange place and describe it in stereotypical and mythical ways which serve to accentuate and reinforce the Orient’s difference from the West.

The Economist found that, in the period 2000 to 2014, most of the deaths from terrorist events occurred in the Middle East and Africa – not the West. Indeed, according to Foreign Policy, in 2015, the most devastating terrorist attacks took place in Nigeria (with death tolls that ranged from 150 to 2,000) and Egypt (with a death toll of 224).

However, Western public responses to such events may appear more muted, perhaps because of an emphasis on the Otherness of non-Western countries, which enables Westerners to more readily accept a lower standard of protection in those countries. While in the West, terrorist attacks such as the ones we witnessed in Paris and Brussels are shocking and unthinkable, in “other” parts of the world – from a Western point of view – they are, sadly, a fact of life.

This notion of the “Other” may, to some extent, also emerge in Middle Eastern reporting of terrorist attacks. According to a review of the Middle East press on the Paris attacks, “within the overall rejection [of the terrorists' violence] that dominated the papers' front pages, a small number of papers raised questions about Western governments' policies in the world”. These papers saw a Western role in “feeding terrorism” and that such attacks took place after “a wave of Islamophobia has emerged in France’s neighbour, Germany”.

But most of the coverage of the Paris attacks in the Middle East was filled with sympathy and concern. Al-Arabiya English, based in Dubai, carried a comprehensive roll-call of Middle East and Gulf leaders condemning the attacks and offering condolences and support. Meanwhile, Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News offered strong analysis and opinion in the days following the atrocity, taking the line that: “This is no longer a fight within the boundaries of the Middle East and Mesopotamia” and calling for a concerted strategy to fight IS.

So for the Middle East press, the West can be the “Other” – and, perhaps, not without justification. But what is also clear is that, perhaps because of their tragic familiarity with terrorism, people in the Middle East and Africa are more generous with their responses to terrorism in the West.

The Conversation

Dr Aldo Zammit Borda, Senior Lecturer in International Law, Anglia Ruskin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.