Why I Didn’t Turn My Facebook Profile French

The scenes I saw online covering the attacks in Paris reminded me of the faces I saw in Boston.

I arrived the night the two brothers were identified on Twitter; when the manhunt for the marathon bombers officially kicked off. I left Harvard’s Chemistry Building a minute after Harvard went on official lockdown. I strolled down deserted Cambridge streets alongside a friend on his bike laughing and carefree, completely unaware of the fact we were ten minutes ahead of the brothers on their way to Watertown. I lay awake on his sofa for the majority of the night listening to police scanners, gun shots, and other fearsome noises emanating from a mere mile away.

When I left Boston, once the brothers were caught, once lockdown was lifted and the city reawakened, I caught the T back to the bus station. The train stopped between stations unexpectedly. Fear levels skyrocketed. There is a face people make in terror; there is a desperate smile which begs not to be killed. “I will be your friend,” it seems to say. “Please don’t kill me, I have a family. I will be missed. I’m not ready to die yet.”

When I watch the images flooding out of Paris this weekend, I see that fear filling our televisions, and powering our solidarity. It’s the fear that reminds us we’re all human. Despite this, I still cannot change my profile photo to the tricolour flag. Initially, I think my guttural distaste came from the tackiness; this is an easy fad. It’s the waving of the flag. It’s an instinctual, knee-jerk reaction of tit-for-tat. ISIS, whomever they may be, are killing for an idea. We are reacting in ignorance. Even if I were to put a pin in the arguments surrounding the rest of the world this weekend: Japan, Beruit, Kenya, Syria… mindless deaths that are as worthy of social media interest, I would still not paint my profile photo with the French flag. It is, in the words of the Independent, “Paint-by-numbers solidarity when it’s foisted on you by one of the most powerful companies in the world (and it) is simply not the way to help a traumatised nation in shock after murder.” How we help a traumatised nation is never actually decided, but I do think the point which links this foistation to that of ISIS publicly propagating itself through social media is one worth pondering.

Tricolour profiles is the Western band-aid. It makes the Western hemisphere feel better; they’ve helped, they’ve shown support, they’ve mourned the possibility of their own homes under attack, all from the safe distance of behind their computer screens. They eliminate the helplessness one feels when one watches those fearful smiles, be they on their television screen or reflected back at them in their mirrors.

As more reports of more attacks and possible bomb threats (one, incidentally at Harvard ) scatter their way across our news feeds, perhaps our band-aid is necessary to hold us together as we watch our world burn.

But, it does not excuse our ignorance with regards to immigration, to Islamophobia, or to the Syrian civilian casualties we pretend do not exist. It does not allow us to enter a gun fight with knives. ISIS is an idea. You can’t bomb an idea. You could wipe out the entire Eastern side of the globe and that idea would still exist. Bombs are futile. Why are we not questioning what it is they really hate about the West and tackling that? Why are we not investigating further what incites people to become radicalized —what is so attractive about their idea? Is it the sense of purpose? Something is playing into a very human desire somewhere — is it power? Is it responsibility? What is it that makes us so determined to see ourselves as good—what if we’re not? One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter after all. That is not to excuse the atrocities currently overpowering our news stations, but it is to try and combat the problem calmly from a place of the peace we are trying to achieve.  I don’t know the answer to these questions. I just think it would be a slightly more productive use of our time than banning “anyone from the Islamic faith” from your store. You want to “put your country first?” Don’t give into the bullies.

Tonight, as I write this, I am not just praying for Paris. Nor am I just praying for those lost in the bowels of Mark Zuckerberg’s empire, hoping that a tricolor filter will keep ISIS from their own door “Not in my backyard, Sir!” I am praying for every single one of those fearful smiles that will haunt my dreams, and the realization that the world as we know it, shall never be quite the same again.

(Image credit: Jean Jullien)

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