Bridging Our Grief Disparity for Horrors Near and Far

By Pravit Rojanaphruk

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Admittedly, I was among those greatly saddened and caught up in the international wave of shared grief following the horrendous Nov. 13 attacks in Paris which left 129 dead and 350 injured. This is understandable.

What’s harder to understand is why many Thais find it difficult to feel equally saddened and shocked by the killings in Syria, Lebanon and parts of the Middle East.

One day before the Paris attacks, two suicide bombers in Beirut killed 43, for example, while Foreign Policy Magazine on Wednesday put the toll of the nearly five-year-old Syrian civil war at more than 250,000 people killed.

Grief and empathy is good, but how do we explain the “grief discrepancy?”

There’re at least three explanations that I could think of.

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First, is the “they are not one of us,” or “the other” mentality. While many bourgeois Thais find it easy to relate to Paris and Parisians, with its high fashion, cafés, gastronomy, joie de vivre and  its world-famous tourist icons such as the Eiffel Tower, numerous museums and more, few Thais, (unless they’re Muslim) can relate to those in the Middle East despite the fact that geographically speaking, the Middle East is closer to Thailand.

This is also why many Bangkokians feel more disturbed by the bombing of Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine which killed 20 in August than the killings and bombings in the Deep South over the past decade which have taken more than 5,000 lives.

To stretch this further, many carnivores accept the slaughtering of livestock for food as “normal” and find it hard or impossible to be disturbed because domesticated animals just are not “one of us.”

Second, the [mostly Western] media pay more attention to deaths in the West. The Associated Press made a point on Tuesday to come up with a story presenting brief life stories of 28 of those killed in Paris, thus adding a human face to the tragedy, which is laudable. It’s more difficult to expect the same treatment for those killed in the Middle East from most of the Western media, however. With the Thai media being largely and hopelessly dependent foreign outlets (mostly through Western wire services and broadcast networks) we often subscribe to international news through a Western point of view.

We know the exact death toll in Paris but do we care to know how many have been killed by the more than 20 bombs since dropped by French warplanes on Syria, and whether any innocent civilians might have become casualties of French President Francois Hollande’s “pitiless” war unfolding against the Islamic State? (Personally, I did not #PrayforParis just so someone could just declare a “pitiless” war.)

Sadly there seems to sadly be no no immediate and independently verifiable news and information of the matter.

Last but not least are the “jaded” feelings many Thais have toward violence and killing in the Middle East, which leads us to feel that more deaths there are just expected and normal. We became desensitized to the suffering of these people, and again, the same argument could be made about the killings in our own Deep South.

“If the Middle East is at peace, then this is strange…,” wrote Facebook user Surasak U-domdath in reply to my question about grief disparity.

Surasak, like many Thais on Facebook who overlaid the colors of the French flag over their Facebook profile picture, probably never wondered whether they could do the same with the Lebanese flag. (It could not, according to the New York Times.) I didn’t overlay my Facebook photo with the French blue, white and red, for suffering and senseless killing bears too many national flags.

Empathy and grief for strangers, for those whom we do not personally know, and who live in a faraway land is good, it makes us more humane and human. Now if we could narrow the grief disparity to make it at least more encompassing.

Pravit Rojanaphruk is a senior staff writer and can be followed on Twitter @PravitR