Paris, Brussels, And Degrees of Separation

In September of 2014, Ebola was ravaging West Africa, killing thousands while threatening to spread beyond the scope of West Africa to Europe and eventually North America. Some in the media were panicking, declaring that Ebola was on it’s way and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

But beyond changing some travel plans, most Americans did nothing to protect themselves.

It’s thousands of miles away, and besides, even if it came to America, it isn’t coming anywhere near me.

That’s what I thought and I think that’s what almost everyone else thought. And then, it happened. The first case of Ebola came in the form of a man from Liberia. When I first heard the news, I was slightly concerned but I didn’t really notice it until I saw that he was in Dallas.

But Dallas is a big city, he’s probably really far away.

So I put in the address where he lived and it stopped me in my tracks. He lived a mile north of my apartment.

Well, I never go up there and neither does anyone I know, so I’m good. Dodged a bullet there.

Then his nurses contracted Ebola. The first one didn’t live near me. But the second one lived AT MY APARTMENT COMPLEX. After hearing that shocking news, my coping mechanism set in again.

Well…it’s a huge complex, and she lives in a completely different building on a completely different street. I’m safe here…I think.

Do you see how that developed in my mind? I didn’t have to worry about Ebola because it was over in Africa…then I didn’t have to worry about it because it would theoretically be somewhere else in the US…then I didn’t have to worry because it would be somewhere else in Dallas…then I didn’t have to worry because it was in another building at my apartment complex.

The degrees of separation between me and this life threatening, highly contagious disease rapidly deteriorated until I was essentially down the street from it. It went from thousands of miles, to half a mile in a matter of days. That safety net of knowing that it was on the other side of the world was gone, but I just went about my day in a normal way.

Although it was a scary time, thanks to the response of some great and brilliant and selfless people, everything was fine and the disease didn’t spread near as much as it could have.

Why am I telling this story and what does it have to do with the attacks in Brussels and the attacks in Paris? I think that a lot of people have that same mindset when it comes to global terror. It takes events like these in famous European cities that many of us have been to in order to wake us up to the real problems that can be caused by terrorists.

We react totally differently to attacks in Paris and Brussels than we do to attacks in Ankara, Istanbul,  Mali, or Kenya. I’ve been to Paris, and I know probably hundreds of people that have been to Paris and Brussels. But I can probably count on one hand the people I know that have been to Ankara, Mali, or Kenya. Attacks in those cities get coverage on the news, but we don’t draw emotional cartoons about them, or light up the Freedom Tower in NYC in the colors of their flag. President Obama doesn’t make statements about attacks in these countries and vow to hunt down the perpetrators.

And I’m not necessarily saying that any of these reactions are wrong. It’s human nature. Especially in this age of information overload. We could read horrible, depressing, bad news every second of every day if we wanted to. We have access to news about every country in the world, and if we so desired we could read about all of the bad things happening in each country. So our coping mechanism is one of two things: we either decide some bad news is more depressing than other bad news, or we ignore everything altogether. Many people chose the latter option, but most tend to choose a version of the first.

Seven months before 130 people were killed in Paris, 148 students at a university in Kenya were massacred by the Islamic terrorist organization Al-Shabab. The Paris attacks deservedly received massive media attention, and worldwide outpourings of support, love, and tributes. The attacks in Kenya were covered, but only people who really pay attention to the news knew about them.

It’s all about the degrees of separation. An average American doesn’t know anyone in Kenya, and they probably don’t even know someone who has been to Kenya. We don’t know the history of Kenya, who they are being attacked by, or why. It’s probably in the back of most people’s minds that Kenya must be a place where “this stuff happens” just like in Syria, Pakistan, or Chechnya. But we know Paris, and we know Brussels, and we know that these aren’t places where this stuff happens. So we react, and we react strongly. And it bothers us, and it makes us think about ourselves, because we see ourselves in Paris and Brussels.

That’s what this all comes down to. We are bothered most by attacks in European countries because we see ourselves in those attacks. Either because we feel like we could be in those cities some day, or because we feel like they bear similarities to us. We mourn more because we fear more.

As a Christian I would argue that we should not just see ourselves in the Paris and Brussels attacks, but also in the Kenyan attacks, the Malian attacks, and the Syrian Civil War. We should see ourselves in the refugee crisis, in poverty, and in prisons.

I’m not preaching at anyone or anything. These are thoughts I’ve been having as I get older and learn to process all of the news I consume on a daily basis. I realized that I would be a very sad person without a better perspective. Too often, I rely on my coping mechanism of separation. What I should rely on is the Lord’s promises of a new Heaven and a New Earth where all the suffering that is happening on this Earth will be gone.

1Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”a for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’b or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:1-4

So, because of that I can’t separate. I can’t detach. The suffering happening on this planet is awful, yet temporary. We are told to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. So, for now, we will mourn, and not just with the victims in Belgium, but with those all over the world who mourn. And we must continue to spread the Gospel as it is the only true way out of this worldwide pain and suffering.


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