Brussels and 'Compassion Fatigue': What Happens When Terrorism Becomes Routine
How many more killings in Europe until they stop making the front page of the newspapers, until spectacularised violence becomes as unspectacular as a car accident?
The really awful thing about terrorism is the way it can suddenly, brutally turn banality into significance. Whatever the mythopoeic pretensions of the attackers, the target is almost always ordinary, everyday life: people are killed on their way to work, bored and restless or hovering over their small worries, or while enduring the administered interminability of air travel, or buying food and necessities, or on another vaguely satisfying night out with friends. Terrorism cuts right into the safe anonymity of normal life and raises that moment into a horrifying importance. That's why it's so terrifying. You hear about people being murdered, not in danger zones or battlefields, but while doing the most ordinary things, and you think: I do that, I do that every day, that could have been me. When personal history turns into world history, it's always something monstrous.
But it doesn't always work. The series of attacks in Brussels on the 22nd of March – two bombs at an airport, one in a train station, 32 victims dead, scores injured, that lurid and panicked nightmare we've all been dreading – are also notable for what didn't happen. After Paris was attacked last November, normal life seemed to stop, as if in sympathy; it felt impossible, or at least insulting, to keep on doing all our insultingly mundane stuff in the face of this sheer tragedy. With Brussels, it seemed, something had changed. Are we growing more callous? There were still frantic news reports and stiff statements of sorrow from politicians. There is still the insidious nonsense of the far right, their calls to close the borders and deport all Muslims, the sense radiating off them that they're secretly glad that this happened, that wormy conviction nestling deep in their outrage: people died for the sole purpose of proving just how right I was all along; as if the mere fact of saying this doesn't prove that you were wrong the whole time.
Of course in Belgium it must have felt very different, but here, at least, there wasn't that same feeling that the earth had briefly stopped spinning. It's obviously subjective, but there were some concrete signs. There was no Belgian flag photo filter on Facebook. After the Paris attacks, thousands gathered for a vigil in Trafalgar Square; this time, a number of people laid flowers outside the Belgian embassy.
A fortnight on, data from content analysts Buzzsumo can add some numbers that might give us pause for thought. In the 24 hours following the Paris attacks, media organisations made over 172,000 Facebook posts mentioning the word "Paris". In the same time period following the Brussels attacks, over 45,000 public posts were made mentioning "Brussels".
This might be because, standing on the outside, it felt so much like an appendix to the events in Paris – after all, it did erupt just after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam by Belgian police. But it's more than that: terrorism, which is supposed to be singular and shattering, is becoming normal. We saw something similar with the IRA's mainland campaign in the 1970s; so many bombings that they ended up becoming part of that same social fabric they were trying to disrupt. It's starting to fade into the background: just another worry, a paranoia among paranoias.
This is called compassion fatigue. It's always been common among nurses and paramedics: people who start out with a real horror of all the evil in the world and the determination to end it, but after a while something starts to fade, and they become cynical. Spend too much time around death and it becomes ordinary. But now, this is happening to everyone. Take Syria, or the migrant crisis. At the beginning of the war, every new massacre or atrocity really was treated with the indignation and solidarity it deserved; when boats started sinking in the Mediterranean, people really were as horrified as they ought to have been by the cruel and capricious destruction of innocent lives. Today, if a bomb hits a market in Damascus and 30 people die, it's hardly even noticed. It already dissolves into the constant background of horror, the screaming we pretend not to hear: that's just the kind of thing that goes on over there. Attacks in Europe haven't reached that stage yet, but it's not hard to see it happening: how many more killings until they stop making the front page of the newspapers, until spectacularised violence becomes as unspectacular as car accidents, or homelessness, or any of the other things that tear away hundreds of lives without anyone feeling the need to do anything about it?
And this is monstrous: the value of a person's life shouldn't depend on where they live, or whether something similar had already happened to someone else. The only conceivably ethical response would be the refusal to ever stop caring about the suffering of others, and the only problem with this is that it can't be done. As Derrida put it, the world is going very badly, it wears as it grows. Millions are starving, millions are hopeless, every day new corpses are churned out by a seemingly impersonal system burrowing its foundations deep into the planet's core. To mourn each victim with the sadness they deserve would make it impossible to ever really live. It's almost blasphemous to just go about your day when the everyday is being so systematically lacerated, or to ever enjoy yourself in the face of a tragedy that never lets up. This is why there's something very cruel about the occasional self-righteousness of the grief police: "Why do you care about this happening in Europe, but not this happening in Africa?" Because it's all too much. Compassion fatigue is a self-defence mechanism, a barrier against the world, the only shelter in which it's possible to survive.
The sad fact is that caring about the victims of tragedy, however morally necessary, doesn't really do anything. The frightening fact is that things don't have to be like this. And it's frightening because it replaces the impossible duty of infinite compassion with a duty that's entirely achievable but very, very hard: to find out why things are so bad, and to actually work to make them better.
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