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Sympathy Wars

March 22nd saw yet another brutal attack by the so-called Islamic State, this time in Belgium, the very heart of European and many world affairs. The bombings, both at the airport and metro station, sent shockwaves throughout Europe, and saw world leaders project and hoist Belgian flags on the eve of the morning’s attack.

This solidarity with Belgium gave several do-good liberals the opportunity to leap back up onto their high horses once again and question why there had not been a Turkish flag flying above 10 Downing Street, where the Belgian flag hung on that fateful day. After all, the death toll in the Ankara bombings just a few days earlier was very similar. Surely a country that seems to have been plagued by terror attacks recently deserves some sympathy and attention? Internet memes and articles proclaiming the systematic, white racism in the West did the rounds on social media: “Why do we care about lost European lives more than Middle Eastern ones?” seemed to be the general theme. The two news stories were only separated by a couple of days, yet one had hundreds of thousands more hits than the other. All lives matter just as much, so it must be systematic racism, right?

Well, delve deeper and you’ll find out we’re not racists, and we do in fact, at the end of the day, value all lives equally. So please let me explain why there’s more to the story. Are you listening up there on your horses, do-good liberals? A “failure” to hoist a Turkish flag but ability to hoist a Belgian one should not be equated with such views. The lack of Turkish flags after the Ankara bombing doesn’t necessarily reflect the view of the people in the country, nor does it necessarily represent those of the leader. Rather, Number 10 had the Belgian flag hoisted for the day because Belgium and Britain are extremely close allies, both politically and geographically – and the gesture reflected the views of the state. However much you may despise David Cameron, it seems highly improbable that the prime minister didn’t feel saddened by the Ankara bombings and the fellow humans who fell victim to the terror there. Rather, Belgium as a country - not as a people - is more important to Britain than Turkey or Lebanon (attacks took place there just before the attacks in Paris, and a similar reaction could be witnessed on social media).

It seems we as Westerners only have an interest when one of our own, so to speak, is attacked. Otherwise there would have been a Lebanese flag filter, similar to the French one on Facebook profile pictures, right? Well, the attacks – Brussels/Paris and Ankara/Beirut – have very different meanings. Westerners, naïvely I’ll admit, seem to think that bombings happen in the Middle East every day so it has become, dare I say it, more “normal” to get a notification that there has been an explosion in that region – more so than if there was another attack in Europe. Alas these sorts of attacks are in fact more common in the Middle East than in Europe, so of course when one happens right on our doorstep people will be more shocked.

This shock is not down to racism; instead, we are more upset when an attack happens in a Western country than in a country like Turkey or Lebanon because we find it easier to relate to the victims of the former. The victims in the Bataclan theatre in Paris for instance, were visiting a concert and listening to the same music we listen to, when terrorists opened fire on them. Our ability to relate those occurrences to our own experiences and what could have happened to us is what makes us so much more moved by attacks on European cities than far-flung ones. That doesn’t make us racist or think any less of somebody else’s life.

Hoisting the Belgian flag and not the Turkish flag does not mean we fundamentally value some lives more than others. Rather it shows how one of the terror attacks hit closer to home and we were able to relate to the victims more – a perfectly human response.