The Compassion Gap: A Western World’s Disparate Reaction to Conflict

Anna Quinn, Loyola University Maryland:

About two weeks ago, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4038, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act of 2015. The bill, which is currently being debated in the Senate, prevents Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. until they undergo a more rigorous vetting process—the most stringent ever required for people seeking refuge from war. The proposal for the law rode the coattails of the recent attacks in Paris, for which at least one of the assailants entered the country under the guise of asylum.

Since the beginning of the conflict in 2010, about 1,554 Syrian refugees have resettled in the United States. President Obama, who threatened to veto the SAFE Act, has said that this coming year the U.S. will admit 5 times this amount. Those that already reside in the country applied to the UN and were screened by the FBI, the Department of Defense and at least 3 other government agencies before being granted asylum. With the new Act, each refugee would require a certification from three top officials—the Secretary of Homeland, FBI director and national intelligence director—in addition to the arduous process already in place. On top of the federal pushback, at least 28 governors have said they will not allow refugees to enter their state. This harsh—if not overdramatic—reaction seems particularly out of place when the less than 2,000 refugees in the US are compared to the influx in rest of the world.

Europe, for one, has become home to about 750,000 migrants in just the past year. The two most popular countries for resettlement have been Germany and Hungary, in part because German Chancellor Angel Merkel pledged asylum to Syrians if they made it to her nation. In Hungary, there are 1,450 refugees per 100,000 Hungarians according to BBC. The EU has struggled to tackle the crisis but ultimately voted on a quota system that would attempt to spread the burden by relocating 120,000 refugees throughout the region. Compared to Europe, the American frenzy over a proposed 10,000 refugees seems entirely melodramatic. This is especially true considering that its current population of refugees does not even reach 1% of those in Germany alone.

Even so, the drama of the US and Europe takes a new meaning when compared to the situation in Syria’s neighboring countries. Of the 4 million that have fled the civil war, over half reside in only a few nations—namely Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Turkey alone has taken in over 2 million of the people attempting to escape the war-torn country. Lebanon falls at a close second with just over 1 million, and Jordan is not far behind with about 600,000. Relative to these numbers, which definitely warrant the term crisis, Europe’s situation seems to be more of a difficult problem, while the United States falls more fittingly under a definition like inconvenience.

While some, like the European Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker, recognize this disparity, it seems that the majority of rhetoric in the Western world fails to acknowledge the relative scale of their nation’s struggle to the actual Syrian conflict. In doing so, they shirk the responsibility for this global crisis and discredit those bearing the brunt of the burden. They even arguably fail to recognize that their lack of action led to the current situation. As an article in the New York Times notes, “many in the [Middle East]—both supporters and opponents of the Syrian government—say they have long warned the international powers that, if left unaddressed, the conflict would eventually spill into the West.”

This reaction—to not, or the choice to not, understand the extent of a problem until it reaches within their borders—is an all too common trait of the Western world. The very attacks that served as the catalyst for the SAFE Act in the U.S. are a perfect example of this discrepancy of empathy. After the incident in Paris, there was a global outpouring of grief: monuments around the globe lit up in solidarity, countless world leaders expressed condolences, Facebook offered a French flag overlay for profile pictures, and seemingly every social media account was branded with the tag #PrayforParis. Just one day before, however, a double suicide attack in Beirut, Lebanon killed 40 civilians. “Much like the scores who died a day later in Paris, [those in Beirut] were killed at random, in a bustling urban area, while going about their normal evening business,” says the New York Times. While the victim toll didn’t reach the 129 that died in Paris, Beirut was an almost identical strike by the same terrorist organization. But, unlike those the next day, these attacks didn’t send the world into mourning. Neither national monuments nor Facebook profiles lit up with the Beirut flag (Facebook didn’t offer the option, and also didn’t provide the “check-in” service that it did for Paris). Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor wrote on her blog that the death of her people seemed to be “an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world.”

Some attribute what the New York Times calls the “compassion gap” to the fact that the Middle East is seen as a region where violence is expected, if not ordinary. But, although Lebanon has had its share of violence in history, their nation was in a time of peace at the time of the strike—it was the deadliest bombing since 1990. Even if the banality of violence is not unfounded, though, like it is in Syria where during its worst times death tolls reached Paris’s 129 almost daily, the disparity of empathy is still shocking. The banality of evil, however naturally it occurs, is only perpetuated by the global community’s failure to react or even recognize certain violent events. The contextual amount of violence in a region or country should not—and does not—alter the value of the lives of those lost in conflict. Further, it should not—and does not—alter the value of the lives of those that are not lost and are still searching for compassionate refuge throughout the world.

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