On the third day of 5th grade, my home became a warzone. The triangle below Canal Street that raised me became an ash-encrusted ground zero. That morning, my classmates and I sat perched on the third floor of PS 234 and watched as flutters of paper and people streamed from the tower with smoke. Minutes later, we fled.
For politicians, 9/11 became a deep-diving subsidiary to any effective fear-mongering campaign, and the ultimate trump card (until Hillary's blunder?). For those of us who grew up and raised our families in ground zero, this signaled the end of home as we knew it. But terror would come home to Iraqis, and Afghanis, and Yemenites to a far greater extent, and it already tore into the homes of so many people around the world.
As the recent tragedies unfolded in Paris, I viscerally returned to the day that war became a part of my mundane daily experience, when tanks parked on Hudson Street and our school building became an army base. I felt for Parisians all too closely. I felt the same poignant pang when my family and I watched the night-vision clips of bombs dropping on Baghdad on the evening news in 2003, and when I watched the gruesome footage of Assad’s chemical warfare on Syrian people last year.
I related to the aching feeling that their lives would never be the same.
Though some of us may experience this same empathy when faced with these realities on our newsfeeds, the way the “West” reacted to the events in Paris (as opposed to tragedies in the Middle East and beyond) made it apparent that too many of us do not. Americans struggle to relate to the way much of the world experiences war, but for all too perceivable reasons, what happened in Paris shook people, and somehow it felt closer to home.
This week, we were forced to reflect on why so many of us aren’t shaken by suffering in places that we’ve become too comfortable resigning to terror.
Through this stark contrast of empathy, we were forced to face what this illusion of separation means for the people living in, and fleeing this suffering.
When nations or religions become the “other,” #alllivesmatterdifferently. This lived disconnect is preyed upon by politicians that callously ask us to close our doors to refugees. Ironically, this disconnect is equally powerful when harnessed by the extremists responsible for the attacks in Paris, a group that flourished in the power vacuum created by the 2003 invasion.
Politicians and extremists capitalize on these moments of fear to create both divisions and unity, but only in the spaces that serve them.
It’s easier to galvanize support for policies that turn away asylum seekers when people don’t feel the same pang in their heart when muslims or Salvadorans die. It becomes easier to relinquish any sense of responsibility for creating the cycles of violence refugees are fleeing in the first place, when the pervading reaction to fear is condoning more violence, rather than empathy.
To the Americans who relate to the people of Paris and NYC: we ask you to take your empathy a step further. If you are willing to try and imagine what it feels like to have your Friday night rock show be pierced by gunfire, take the next step and imagine what it feels like to hear the sound of artillery everyday. At what point would you abandon your home and your relatives and seek refuge in a safer place? When your neighbor's home was flattened? When you received the third death threat?
Instead of feeding into the illusion of separation that serves political agendas of US senators and ISIS alike, we need to stand together and demand that #alllivesmatter. We need to allow the terror in Paris to give us insight into the terror that millions of people are fleeing, from Syria to Mali, to just south of our border. We should tune into the sudden terror we feel when our privileged way of life is momentarily jeopardized, and understand that refugees experience this the same way until it’s no longer momentary, and they must flee or face death.
In these moments of fear, we must unite in empathy and solidarity to declare that the illusion of division does not serve us.
In unity, we ought to welcome those who are struggling to regain their sense of home, so that they too may enjoy the way of life that we all seek.
By Ellie Alter