Paris was not the only capital city targeted by Islamic State terrorists last week. As the Paris shootings made headlines worldwide, some 1,700 miles away another horrific attack against humanity lost prominence in the world media. This attack occurred in the capital city of Beirut, Lebanon. Lebanon is that tiny country that stands between Syria and Israel, approximately 4,000 square miles – roughly two-thirds the size of the state of Connecticut in the United States. It might be hard to spot on a map.
The attacks in Paris and Beirut are only the latest in a wave of terrorism that has swept the globe in recent months. Only weeks ago, a Russian airliner was downed near Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort in what has been confirmed as a bomb attack. In July, Egyptian soldiers killed nearly 100 militants in the Sinai during skirmishes there. Meanwhile in the Turkish capital of Ankara, nearly 100 were killed in explosions. All of the attacks were confirmed or suspected of being linked to ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).
As the world continues to mourn the deaths of at least 129 people in Paris at the hands of alleged Islamic State militants, a hero has emerged whose actions literally saved the lives of countless people — and he was nearly 2,000 miles away from Paris. Unlike the attacks in Paris, his story and the story of the other terrorist attack last week has received little media attention, so let me correct that oversight.
Adel Termos was his name and yes, he was a Muslim. Termos, a thirty-two year-old car mechanic and a father of two, was walking in an open-air market with his daughter Malak in southern Beirut’s Bourj al-Barajneh district, when he heard a blast. A bomb had detonated. Glass and debris were flying. There was mayhem. After the blast, Termos phoned his wife, telling her he was going to help the wounded. But before Termos could offer his help, he noticed a second suicide bomber approaching a mosque. Termos made a split-second decision to tackle the assailant. The intervention forced the bomber to detonate his suicide vest. The bomb went off, killing both the bomber and Termos. And Termos’ sacrifice likely saved dozens, if not hundreds of lives.
“He tackled him to the ground, causing the second suicide bomber to detonate,” Elie Fares, a Beirut-based physician and eyewitness reported. “There are many, many families, hundreds of families probably, who owe their completeness to his sacrifice.” He added: “They died because of some demented, twisted politics. Adel is the reason we are not talking about fatalities in the three digits today; he is the reason some families still have their sons, daughters, fathers and mothers; he is a Lebanese hero whose name should be front and center in every single [media] outlet.”
With at least 43 dead and 239 injured, it was Lebanon’s worst bombing since the August 2013 blasts in Tripoli, which killed 47. But if it had not been for Adel Termos, it could have been much worse. It was initially thought Termos’ young daughter, Malak, died, but a picture has circulated on social media showing the little six-year-old girl carrying a picture of her dead father.
A small but growing band has hailed Termos as a hero and has urged people to remember him and the other victims. Present media coverage has largely ignored the attacks in favor of overwhelming coverage of the events in Paris.
Basima Atat, Termos’ widow says of her late husband’s actions: “My six-year-old daughter now says Dad is a martyr, a hero, in heaven. Do you know what it means to be a hero? I am alive, and happy, and proud of my husband who held our family name up high and honored us. The kids and I are all doing fine. He made us proud, put our heads up high, what more do I need? He gave me dignity, pride, and respect.”
It has been a week since the bombings in Beirut. Shock at the atrocities has not worn off in Burj al-Barajneh. A loud boom echoes in the distance and conversation stops; people shake momentarily in fear of another blast. Panic recedes when the noise proves to be thunder, but it is always near the surface.
Life continues to go on in the southern suburbs of Beirut, which have endured a series of suicide bombings over the past two years in response to Hezbollah’s forceful intervention in Syria on the side of Bashar al-Assad. The street where the suicide bombers struck last Thursday is once again alive with traffic, though signs of the massacre remain – smashed windows, closed shop fronts, portraits of the dead, flower memorials, and a shuttered mosque.
But the anger is clear. “These people are not humans,” Bilal Jelwane, Termos’ brother-in-law, said of the suicide bombers. “If you disagree with someone you don’t kill them. Imagine somebody coming to kill innocents in God’s name. We’re supposed to say Allahu Akbar when we are sacrificing sheep, not before slaughtering people.” He added: “The problem is these people think that by blowing themselves up they are going to join the prophet [Muhammad] in heaven. Our prophet is a prophet of mercy, our Islam is a religion of forgiveness, kindness, compassion, not a religion of killings and swords and slaughter.”
Whether it is in Paris, Beirut, Ankara, or New York City, I am reminded that all countries in the world are facing the possibility of attacks and innocent deaths but we just do not always know about them or perhaps we choose to ignore them.
Such occurrences are not just attacks against Paris. They are not just attacks against Beirut. They are attacks against humanity. This is how we should see them. Every day, somewhere on this vast planet, thousands of people are being killed. And still, we divide attacks as if peoples’ lives in Europe or in the United States are more important than peoples’ lives in the Middle East. “When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag,” Elie Fares wrote on his blog. “When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in THOSE parts of the world.”
While some have decried an “empathy gap” between the two attacks, the disproportionate media attention may also have more to do with a sense that the attacks on Paris were more shocking than the attacks on Beirut. That feeling was in part because many news media consumers have come to expect that violence is more or less commonplace in the Middle East.
Unlike Beirut, we do not typically associate Paris with terrorism. Even though Paris is one of the most polarized places in the world, in the mind of many people the City of Lights is romanticized. In this mythical version, Paris is a city of artists and intellectuals, a city of rudeness and masculine weakness, a city adored by students and dilettantes, lovers and honeymooners, a city where the women are beautiful and the men are well-dressed. Friedrich Nietszche said of Paris: “An artist has no home in Europe, except in Paris.” You will never hear such claims for Beirut.
James Igoe Walsh, a professor who studies the relationship between terrorism and the media at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said: “Whereas [in Beirut] that sort of fits in with their existing conceptions of what happens in the Middle East.” Walsh also noted that Paris, more than Beirut, is a place that many in America have experienced directly or through its cultural products. The American media may feel a connection to the attacks on Paris and therefore followed those assaults more closely than those that shook Beirut just the day before.
“There’s a lot more media people in Paris than there are in Beirut, so even if the [Western] media had wanted to cover the Beirut attacks as intensively as they did the Paris attacks, it would be logistically a lot more challenging to do and probably a lot more expensive,” Walsh said.
Scientifically, it is also true that there really is only so much tragedy a person can process and care about. Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, warns that demonizing people who express real empathy for another country in need is not necessarily a great idea. He says, “Expressions of empathy of others can be wonderful, and it’s certainly not something you criticize. What becomes problematic is when it’s so unequally distributed. If people don’t seek out news about the suffering of other groups, they might get a perception that they’re the only ones who are suffering.”
“And there is hope,” he adds, “that our brains will always be so geared toward supporting those who have the same colored skin as us. Our brains are incredibly flexible – Americans can feel like the French are an outgroup if they do something that opposes our policy goals.” (Remember the political euphemism, “Freedom Fries” rather than French Fries during the Bush years in response to France’s opposition to the proposed invasion of Iraq?) Bruneau concludes, “But at a time like this we feel like they are our deepest compatriots. So this is of course, the great hope, that we can always change who we are and how we think.”
We should understand that the innocent people who died in Paris are just like the ones who died in Beirut and in any other country facing terror and violence. This one single night attack in Paris has been a constant norm in Beirut, Lebanon for the past thirty years. All lives on this earth count. Every country that faces a tragedy must have an “I am Safe” option on Facebook. Every innocent life that is killed should earn a hashtag. People should not be indifferent to any death. We should mourn every human being dying in an attack. No exceptions. No excuses.
So, by all means pray for Paris, but also pray for Beirut. In fact, pray for the whole wide world. See each person as an equal human being. And if I may paraphrase Pope Francis here: “If you can’t or don’t pray, at least send good vibrations in their direction.”
Je suis Paris (I am Paris).
أنا بيروت (I am Beirut).
I am, we are – the world.