Cities of Light

Like everyone, I am aghast at the events in Paris and Beirut. I have been grappling with whether to write anything, as there have been plenty of words and lines written since Saturday, and I’m not sure if I can add anything worthwhile. I haven’t watched the news bulletins, getting most of my information from the online sources. I also try to limit the amount that I take in. Partly through self preservation, but also partly through retaining the ability to make good professional judgements. This is something that I have always done, be it 9/11, Bali, Black Saturday. You can get caught up in the enormity of it, and it can colour your judgements. The geopolitics of the tragedy are fascinating, but that’s well outside the realm of this little old blog.

Why do we as a society react to Paris, and not Beirut? Paris has a place in many people’s hearts. I think this is why we have such strong reactions to these events, and not, say the bombing in the market in Beirut which killed nearly as many people- although I am sure this would provoke a strong reaction in friends with connections to Lebanon. On a societal level, we can relate to it. It was the same with the bombings in London, the image of a red double decker bus, images of our largely Anglo childhoods, confronting us in death. Many people I spoke with at the time were unsettled by these bombings “That was the tube I used to take, I caught that bus, I worked just near there)” yet the Madrid bombings, which killed more people, didn’t rate in conversations, and wasn’t newsworthy after the initial incident.

Perhaps the Paris attacks grab our attention, because of their focus; restaurants, football stadium, concert venue. These are all places we take for granted, and we also think, well, if that was in Melbourne, Washington or Wellington, that could have been me. Also events that passed last Friday night captured real time in imagery is amplified in Paris through mainstream and social media.So this also adds to people relating and reacting to these events. It is easier for us to be part of it, than say bombings in Beirut. But we mustn’t forget the lives that are being lost all over the global in the name of intolerance.

The shattering of the sense of security, of the things taken for granted, will be a huge challenge for the survivors. Bali survivors told me they were unable to go into bars, unable to be in places with large crowds. I suspect many in Paris will be in the same situation. Levels of post traumatic stress will be high. Research suggests it can be up to third of those exposed, much higher than in so called natural disasters. Part of the reason for this is that there is malevolent intent, someone tried to kill me, or killed my loved one/friend. It is harder to make sense of the situation (why would they do that to me, I haven’t done anything to them) and ascribe a meaning.

The official reaction, as always, has been to exhort people to be “not afraid”. Of course, governments do not want to appear weak or let the terrorists win. The challenge, of course, is that many people will be afraid. And people should be allowed to be afraid. This is a normal reaction to a life threatening situation. In a number of interviews I saw after the London Bombings, where people were told to get back on with things,  people talked about feeling uncertain,their fears, that they wanted to be able to stop, talk with others, and be afraid for a bit. There is a danger in not recognising all people’s emotions, of pushing people’s fear and potential trauma into the background.

Making sense of a situation and ascribing a meaning to it, I think are important in how we deal with disasters. I don’t think enough attention is given to these area, both are rooted in sociological theory (it is an area I am very interested in). While sense making is seen as a organisational theory applied as a leadership quality, I think that it has application to individuals, as it seeks to structure the unknown. In this instance, the disaster, the attacks, push people into a realm of the unknown. On Friday, for most people, life was largely known, and predictable. On Saturday, many things, if not everything, that one takes for granted is unknown; what happened, why, how to react, how not to react, safety and security. People need to make sense of this situation, and what it means to them. I’ve heard people at various points in their recovery journey say “ I now get it, I now understand what happened” and this seems to be a major hurdle overcome (it still doesn’t mean they are “happy” with what happened.). Support needs to recognise this. This is also why commissions of inquiry, properly conducted, can go a long way to helping people understand what happened.

I’ve seen a lot of debate about whether changing your facebook profile to the French flag or lighting buildings in Red, White and Blue is really meaningful. Unfortunately, there isn’t the same option with the LEbanese flag. I think symbolism is important, as it helps us make sense of situations. It is why we memorialise disasters. I see this action  as akin to a secular, 21st Century version of lighting a candle. Of course in the age of clicktivism, and instant gratification, it is easy to do. I hope people do it because they are genuinely touched by the events.

My daughter Amy said to me “I hope Paris will be alright” (Eiffel Towers adorn her room,  she is besotted by the place). I do too, as I do for Beirut, and Syria, and anywhere else that is subjected to systematic violence.

Keith Jarrett’s Paris Concert, improvisational intensity.

Ibrahim Maalouf’s beautiful homage to peace, Beirut

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