It’s a fair question – who are we all, really?
A Facebook news feed can be a revealing indicator of our collective psyche, or at least my sampling of it. For a day or so, mine was filled with blue, white, and red while personal posts dwindled to a minimum, out of respect for the horror of the terrorist attacks in Paris. It’s been a few days now, so the animal videos and song postings and personal musings have started to return amidst a still healthy sprinkling of blue, white, and red.
I understand and appreciate the desire to express support, outrage, sadness — to do something — so saying “nous sommes tous parisiens” or some variant is one way to express these things. But what does it mean, really? My experience is that it falls short of meaning what we want it to mean:
Nous ne sommes pas tous Libanais. By now, there has been more effort to recognize that there was a similar tragedy just the day before in Beirut, where several dozen people died from a terrorist attack. Still, it has been rightfully pointed out that this tragedy was largely ignored in the US and the West. My FB feed has many dozen French flags, but I’ve only seen one Lebanese flag. So that’s one reason why my profile picture has a Lebanese flag instead — for the sake of better balance and a wider perspective.
Nous ne sommes pas tous tristes. So many of us are sad at what happened in Paris, but then there are those few who are not sad at all, who are rejoicing at what happened in Paris, specifically the perpetrators and their supporters. Also, to be honest, it’s human nature to be sad about more familiar things. My FB feed has shown many pictures of friends in Paris, always associated with a fond memory, as do I.
Very few people I know have memories of Beirut, so the ability to identify more easily with a personal memory is not there. Still, many people are not sad at what happened in Beirut because they (still) don’t know about it. It is just as saddening, so that’s another reason for the Lebanese flag.
Nous ne sommes pas tous unis. We are all not united either. Even as many people aim for unity and other manifestations of our better angels, others have used the opportunity for more axe-grinding. The comments of the GOP presidential candidates have been especially appalling — It’s Obama’s fault! More guns! Close the borders! Only accept Christian refugees! Blame for the Paris attacks has also been leveled at the “Liberal Left,” homosexuality, Edward Snowden, America, the UK, and France itself. But the finger pointing goes in all directions, for instance the pictures in my FB feed of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as the creators of ISIS through their misbegotten policies. It’s not a picture of collective unity.
What are we all then, really?
The other night, I starting talking with someone about the Paris attacks. My conversation partner said she thought that an attack on the US was now inevitable. At first I thought this was rather fatalistic. Then she also mentioned how most everyone was ignoring Beirut, which she said was a lovely, wonderful place back in the day when she first lived there — “it was like Switzerland,” she said.
She then told me she thought that Americans will have trouble coping with attacks, with the noise of sirens and bombs going off. She knew this because she also lived in Beirut during its civil war, and she recalled what it was like to hear bombs and sirens and lamentations on a regular basis — to live for six months at a time without electricity or water — how she almost got killed, and how she saw people die in front of her.
So this is the other reason that I have a Lebanese flag on my profile picture: because her story made it real for me. Whenever I look at this person again, I will see someone who knows first hand what such attacks are like, and who reminds me that who we all are extends beyond our immediate experience. I don’t know what we all are, really, except maybe that we all are aspirants for a better world, even if we do so in such wildly different and often destructive ways.