A Facebook friend – whom I wasn’t even aware I had ‘befriended’ – posted a threat with a thirty-minute ultimatum on his timeline this past Monday.
To boot, he tagged and mentioned only me by name in his post, threatening to unfriend and block all friends with a French flag-adorned profile picture from his profile if they failed to remove the “Tricolore” from their profiles.
The reason he gave for this online outburst was that the people adorning the flag had failed to demonstrate the same level of solidarity in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Kenya, a few years ago.
Needless to say, I responded by telling the man to go ahead and unfriend and block me, offering that he need not wait for half an hour to do so. I haven’t gone back to check if the threat had been carried out because losing that person as a Facebook friend remains the least of my concerns.
Besides, he never bothered to find out what my connection was with France and why it mattered to me to demonstrate solidarity with the people of that country. I doubt that other Facebook friends in the same situation were invited to explain their action either.
Why France and not Beirut, Syria, Kenya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Russia, Iraq or Nigeria?
A possibly simplistic answer would be that although gunshots, mass stabbings and conventional as well as suicide bomb attacks are part of everyday life in several parts of the world, they do not feature in everyday vocabulary discussing life in Paris.
They therefore stand out like a sore thumb. If one were to play that primary school game consisting of identifying an odd number or item in a lined-up group, and that group consisted of war-ravaged countries, France would not belong.
Perhaps in a strange way, it is a shock to the system to associate the heart of modern Paris with mass shootings and bombs, despite the events of World War II and the massacre of Algerian anti-war protesters at the height of Algeria’s war of liberation against France in 1961 as well as the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year.
The City of Lights
With some 32.3 million people visiting it in 2013, Paris keeps scooping the top spot as the most popular tourist destination in the world. Images of tourist drawcards such as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, Notre-Dame de Paris, the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Cœur, Jardin du Luxemburg, Musée d’Orsay and several others adorn postcards and posters and are depicted in miniature imitations all over the world.
It therefore seems reasonable to assume that the people we’ve seen demonstrating solidarity with the victims of terror in Paris were driven first of all by the positive, inspirational images of the city of romance and lights – Paris Lumière – as they have come to know it.
This instantaneous show of solidarity was filmed and photographed in far-flung places like Mexico, Japan, the USA, Canada, Brazil, South Africa and several European countries, among others. In the same way, it seems unreasonable to assume that they were driven by racism towards or disregard for victims of terror in Beirut, Russia and other parts of the world.
The same outpouring of grief was not shown when a tourist-packed Russian plane was downed by what has now been confirmed to be a bomb which exploded in its luggage hold a mere few weeks ago. Why would people of the world demonstrate such sympathy towards victims of terror in France but not in the Sinai, Egypt, Beirut and Lebanon, even though most of the victims were Caucasian despite not being French?
Destination brands and mind-space
It is possible that people carve out spaces for all sorts of brands, including country brands, in their minds. The place determined by such brands is often influenced by what those countries are known for and marketed as, who leads them and the global attractiveness, therefore appeal, of their leaders.
Many foreign tourists and personalities in the arts, cinema, business, politics, etc loved coming to South Africa when former president Nelson Mandela was still in office. A photo opportunity for the likes of Bono, Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton, Richard Bronson, Jesse Jackson, the Dalai Lama, Naomi Campbell, Charlize Theron and many others was all it took to convince many celebrities to come to South Africa and boast of an association with this country.
With the departure of Mandela and the failure of all the leaders who came after him to fill even a quarter of his shoes, those days are long gone.
African political leadership is lacking
Cynical as this might sound, it seems like it will take a lot more than guilt-driven cries and accusations of unfairness to generate wider, especially simultaneous, solidarity with terror attack victims in the Middle East and Africa.
First of all, political leaders in Africa have to lead from the front and, like their European Union counterparts, demonstrate love and genuine concern for their people and take a united, public stance in condemning Al Shabaab and Boko Haram. They have to do everything to make terror in their countries the exception, rather the norm.
Until then, terror will continue to be added to the negative basket of adjectives associated with their countries and be seen as ‘normal’ by others.