I woke up today to social media reacting to the attacks in Brussels. I prepared for work not knowing exactly what they were reacting to, then before I went out the door, read a news story that was low on details, telling me only of locations and explosions with the implication of Islamic terrorism. On the way into work I had the radio on, tuned to the French language station. I'm not fluent in French, so I have to use mental effort to divine meaning from the sounds, to connect the words with their meanings and have them evoke picture of what they mean. I don't comprehend every detail, and I have no mental capacity left over with which to permit the words and pictures to evoke additional thoughts. What's normally just a way to practise my French in the car also serves as a layer of insulation against the world.
I need that insulation. I empathize very easily. I enjoy bawling at fictional people's lives and deaths on Grey's Anatomy. I cry over the crises in my friends' lives. Back in 1991 I sat at the kitchen table with the newspaper front page story on the Highway of Death in Kuwait, and I cried for hours. My roommates took it in futile shifts to try to console me. I can't live like that. I have to insulate myself from other people's horror. When the next Gulf War came along and the coalition went into Iraq, I activated a mental forcefield. I cordoned off Iraq--and most of that region--as a place where bad things happen, where life is worth less. It's not. I'm sure a person in Iraq would be just as sad as you or I would be if her cat died, or he didn't get the job he really wanted, or her child got picked on in school. People don't modulate their emotions to maintain proportion to other people's tragedies. They depth of the heartbreak you feel when the person you love is no longer there for you does not vary with the number of people who died in a Peruvian bus crash the same day. The comparison might make you feel foolish on an intellectual level, but it doesn't diminish what you feel inside about your own tragedy.
The forcefield around places where bad things happen cushions me as the Daesh violence spreads north, because apparently Turkey was already inside the forcefield I was maintaining. And articles like this one show that it's not just me who uses this kind of forcefield. To switch metaphors, when there's a forest fire raging in an area, it's common to create a firebreak. Firefighters take out a swath of trees ahead of the path of the fire, to prevent it from progressing. (I have seen a situation where a forest fire was sweeping through a community, and firefighters drove a bulldozer through a mall, to create an urban firebreak). If the fire is wild enough and the wind strong enough, the fire can jump over the firebreak and spread to the trees beyond the break, or the other end of the mall, or Belgium.
I didn't realize how close to home the attacks in Belgium were, until I was approaching an international airport today. Terrorists attacked an international airport. I'm not afraid that I'm going to be attacked. I'm not walking around the terminal jumping away from Kalashnikov-toting shadows. I'm just angry that terrorists hit where I live. It's not only the people in Brussels and Ankara, and in aviation and public transit, who were hit where they live this week. Islamic people were too. I try to imagine what it would be like if someone committed an act of terrorism in the name of something I believe in. I can imagine if someone maybe killed someone in the name of equal rights for women. There would be a level on which I could empathize with the person. Yeah, it sucks being told to your face that the job is unavailable to people with your genitalia, but it's not a reason to blow people up. If it happened, there would be people hurling all kinds of retaliatory abuse at women in general, and at me in particular for being one. Heck, that happens even in response to lawful protests. I would feel a more immediate need to defend myself against the backlash, than to condemn the one or the few that carried out the act of terrorism. And then there would be men criticizing me for not immediately condemning the terrorist in the same terms that they did.
I understand how people write off all of Islam as a bad thing. Plenty of people condemn all Christians because some of them picket gay veterans' funerals or shoot up abortion clinics. It's emotionally complex to consider that there could be people who pray side by side to the same God, using the same words, but one of them would plan the death of other human beings in the name of that God, and another would be horrified beyond words that anyone could do that.
Despite my self-serving walls, I realize the ubiquity of the human willingness to do horrible things to one another. My sympathy to the victims, to those whose city or trade has been attacked, and to the innocents who are persecuted for their similarity to the perpetrators.