Who is a Terrorist?

When the attacks in Paris happened last week, I searched for something to say that wasn’t being said by everyone else. There was little to add, so I remained silent while trying to sort through my thoughts and emotions.

Typically, when the crowd all goes one way, I tend to become skeptical and veer off. The crowd has a tendency to stop thinking and just keep following… right over the cliff’s edge. So, when everyone started changing their FB profile picture with an overlay of the tricolor flag, I was hesitant. I didn’t do it for marriage equality, why should I do it for Paris. Yet, I wanted some way to show we Americans were standing with France, despite our petulant reaction to them not joining the ill-advised Iraq invasion. As it turns out, it was that very invasion that laid the groundwork for Isis to rise and attack Paris. After some hesitation, I hit the button to change my picture for a week and started shuffling along with everyone else.

The next day I regretted joining the crowd when the tricolor backlash started. Several articles pointed out that there have been lots of recent terrorist attacks in countries like Somalia (11/1 – 12 dead), Iraq (11/7 – 12 dead), Lebanon (11/12 – 43 dead), and Iraq again (11/12 – 19 dead). Nobody was rushing to overlay their flags on their profiles. I’m assuming nobody has changed their flag to Mali’s flag either. So to display France’s flag when you didn’t display theirs was to show yourself to be a racist.

I get their point. Americans so rarely care about the fate of people that don’t look and think like they do. Some blame the media, but the media doesn’t cover those trajedies, mainly because most of us don’t care. Still, the criticism felt childish. Isn’t it refreshing that something actually jarred Americans away from the latest Real Housewives episode and moved them to feel our universal connection? It felt snarky to shame normally apathetic people just when they were showing some empathy.

Besides, our empathy had more to do with familiarity than racism. Many people have been to Paris. It is a tangible place to them. Even if they didn’t know those particular locations, they can see themselves there – enjoying a late night dinner at a cafe, sharing a few drinks at a bar, or maybe taking in a music concert while visiting the City of Lights. It makes it feel very personal. It makes people feel very vulnerable. It could have been them.

Most people can’t put themselves in a hotel in Mogadishu, or on the streets of Lebanon or Iraq. We would never travel there, so while it’s tragic, that connection to ourselves just isn’t there. Because these places are often violent and unsafe, when something bad happens there, it feels expected. It does not tweak us in quite the same way.

Yesterday, while work was being done in my house, I ran off to a matinee of MockingJay Part 2. When watching the The Hunger Games, I realized what a tricky thing Suzanne Collins had done. People in the theater were actually cheering out loud at the death of children. Granted, they were the bad kids, but still, to have an audience follow you down the path to celebrate killing a child was stunning. I began to see us in the audience as not that different from the citizens of the Capital. We had become comfortable with the killing of children as entertainment.

She may have outdone herself in MockingJay Part 2. The audience will find themselves rooting for the people who spout the same ideology as modern-day terrorists, while despising the rhetoric that our politicians spew on a daily basis. Katniss argues that killing civilians is off limits, and Gale counters that if the civilians are supporting the system that oppresses them, they are fair game. His argument wins, and the Districts engage in terroristic tactics. Snow rallies the people with derision for the violent and evil rebel terrorists who hate the Capital’s freedom and lifestyle. He offers protection to his people while bombing entire cities off the map. Sound familiar?

The idealistic side of me would hope that the audience might go home and think through this dilemma. Who is a terrorist? Is it the system that oppresses, or those who use the only means available to free themselves? Is it both? What would happen if, rather than bombing cities off the earth, we reacted with an outpouring of aid and comfort? Wouldn’t it be harder to justify joining a terrorist group when your needs are met, and the enemy has become a valued friend? If at the first signs of trouble in the Districts, Snow had realized his mistakes, canceled the Hunger Games, gave limited autonomy to the Districts, and began trading the wealth of the Capital for the resources of the Districts — first, there would have been no book series, but there would also have been no rebellion, no terrorist acts, and no death. Are we Americans the Capital or the Districts?

It makes you think. Or at least it made me think. But I still have no answers. It’s a very complex world.