Kempis: Jakarta, Paris and the problem with selective grief


Nicole Kempis, Columnist

Last Thursday afternoon, a number of assailants associated with the Islamic State group attacked a shopping district in central Jakarta, Indonesia, killing eight people and wounding more. In many ways the attack resembled those in Paris last year, as it occurred in the heart of an international metropolis and was carried out in multiple locations. The social media reaction to the Parisian attacks was overwhelming and ubiquitous; in comparison, the response to the Jakarta attack has been minimal and limited to those associated with Indonesia.

Sheer numbers could account for this difference; 130 people were killed during the “Night of Terror” in Paris as opposed to the eight deaths in Jakarta. But early last year, 12 people died during an attack on Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, resulting in global outrage and sparking numerous conversations about the line between hate speech and free speech.

Numerically, the Charlie Hebdo death toll is fairly similar to that of the Jakarta attack, yet our reaction has been completely different. In response to the events at Charlie Hebdo, Northwestern organized a panel discussing free speech and numerous staff and students attended a memorial held at a French cultural center in Chicago. I observed hundreds of friends comment and share posts about both Parisian attacks, yet I noted only three people respond to the tragedy in Indonesia.

Although it is impossible to place an objective value on human tragedy, these numbers illustrate that our response as a community is not directly proportional to the loss of human life. There must be other elements that govern our collective response to such calamities, such as complex beliefs rooted in cultural understanding and relatability.

In the wake of the Paris attacks in November, millions of Facebook users draped the French flag over their profile pictures and monuments worldwide sported the nation’s colors. It was touching to see the world respond to the French tragedy with compassion, but in the days following the attack a media countercurrent emerged. Articles and images were published criticizing the international community’s failure to acknowledge the almost simultaneous attacks in Beirut and Baghdad.

Our failure to respond to Jakarta is just one example among the many hypocrisies we practice on a daily basis. The Monday prior to the events in Jakarta, the Islamic State claimed the lives of 17 civilians in a mall in Baghdad and in Eastern Syria massacred at least 135 people on Saturday. The death toll is endless, and it would be impossible for everyone to constantly and adequately grieve for so many. Furthermore, we cannot begin to acknowledge the millions of Muslims whose daily lives are negatively affected by untrue stereotypes that are based on these extremist actions.

So we choose who we grieve for, and in a community like Northwestern it is not surprising that we select Paris. We have a large French department that offers about 30 courses per quarter. There are a number of international students from France and a consistent cohort of French exchange students, as well as a number of NU students abroad in France every quarter. In comparison, NU does not offer classes in Indonesian and does not provide organized exchange programs to the region. In general, students are more likely to have visited Paris (historically one of the most visited cities in the world) than Jakarta. This does not excuse our state of hypocrisy, but it does explain it.

If we are going to react as a university to tragedies such as those in Paris and Jakarta, we need to make an effort to create some level of consistency in our response. There are students from all over the world at NU, and we cannot honestly claim we are an inclusive community if we honor some histories above others.

We cannot, and should not, stem the tide of grief in response to terrorist attacks in the Western world. Nor can we force the student body at NU to care about events in places to which they do not feel a genuine connection. The best way to forge authentic attachments to many countries is to meet people from all over the world, or to study a wide range of countries through a non-Eurocentric curriculum. There is no short-term solution to our hypocrisy. Authentic grief for deaths that occur in less developed countries can only happen once we start to understand others as truly human.

#kamitidaktakut, “Jakarta is brave.”

Nicole is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected] . If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.