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Debates Post-Paris Attacks Are Necessary, Not Disrespectful

11/23/2015 10:00 EST | Updated 11/23/2016 05:12 EST
Manu Fernandez/AP
EDS NOTE : SPANISH LAW REQUIRES THAT THE FACES OF MINORS ARE MASKED IN PUBLICATIONS WITHIN SPAIN A boy holds a banner reading in Catalan: "Islam is not terrorism" during a demonstration, called by the IBN Battuta Foundation on behalf of the Muslim community to show solidarity with the victims of the terror attacks of Paris at the Sant Jaume square in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. France is urging its European partners to move swiftly to boost intelligence sharing, fight arms trafficking and terror financing, and strengthen border security in the wake of the Paris attacks. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Half an hour after the Paris attacks, an Arab-American colleague of mine tweeted about how the Beirut ISIL bombing that happened a day earlier was largely ignored by the Western world.

His indictment caught me off guard. Wasn't it disrespectful to the dead and about-to-die to immediately divert attention from the tragedy? I felt unsettled. I now realize it was important to sit with that discomfort.

In last week's New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni said no one should use Paris to siphon attention towards other issues. He cited attempts to connect free speech, climate change and immigration to the attacks. I obviously don't think a tragedy should be used to push totally random agendas. But for those of us with the luxury of not being consumed by grief, now is the best time to talk about issues related to terrorism, such as racism, Western exceptionalism, refugee policy and hate crimes. Post-tragedy, we're engaged enough to pay attention to the important issues we usually ignore.

My colleague is right that the Western world was oblivious to the recent attacks in Beirut, as well as those in Ankara, Baghdad and Kenya. There are many important stories we disregard because they are too far away, too complicated and less enjoyable to read than articles about clip-on man buns (it's a thing, look it up). We are a selfish, distracted bunch that has trouble thinking beyond our own busy lives.

That narrow focus is why journalists love any opportunity to give an issue a "news peg." On an average day, no one clicks on a 3,000-word think piece about refugees. But if that piece comes the day after a photo of a drowned Syrian child went viral, suddenly it stands a chance against "Cute Panda Eats Cucumber." Remember the dialogue about trusting sexual assault victims that emerged in the wake of allegations against Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby? That only happened because we were captivated by each horrible development. When a tragedy consumes the world's attention, we need to debate as much as we need to grieve.

We need to battle misinformation. More than half of America's state governors now oppose refugees and tens of thousands of Canadians have signed a petition to stop their resettlement in our country. Now is the time to say over and over again that data prove refugees aren't national security threats - since 9/11, 0.000003 per cent of them have been arrested for plotting terrorist activities - and remind people they are put through a rigorous screening process before being accepted into Canada. It's the time to counter anti-Muslim sentiments with facts: extremists make up a statistically insignificant fraction of the Muslim population and we know ISIL manipulates the basic teachings of Islam to justify its violent tactics.

It's important we take the Paris attacks as an opportunity to reflect on ourselves as individuals and as a country. We should talk about the myth of Canadian pluralism and how the anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric is reminiscent of the way we treated Jewish refugees during the Nazi era, Chinese immigrants who built the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 19th century and Canadian-Muslims in 2015.

We should also question our own prejudice. This week, I've considered what it means that I care more about the attacks in Paris than those in other parts of the world. Yes, I've taken pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower and am more connected to Western culture. But that connection means I instinctively prioritize the world's most rich and powerful places.

All this debate and reflection can lead to progress. Fifteen state governors have now spoken out about why they welcome refugees. Facebook, which was criticized for not enabling its "safety check" feature in others regions, recently offered the function in Nigeria.

It's important that in addition to mourning the 129 Parisians who lost their lives, we force change for the lives we routinely ignore.

*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen