In the twenty-four hours since the attack, I stared at a glowing rectangle, looking for answers. I am a journalist by trade, and we as a profession mine tragedy for truth. This was big, we knew. This was dark, we knew, and this was not new, we knew, we knew, we knew.
My beat exists at the edge of news like this. I watch the attacks, scanning for technologies we haven’t seen before, and I will watch the aftermath, as hundred billion dollar planes search the skies for someone writing emails on the other side of a contested border. There is not, yet, a tech angle to the attacks themselves. Cell phones and computers are common, encryption is a known tactic, small arms and modest explosions are the stock trade of terrible days. It was a bomber’s vest at a check-point that alerted authorities. The bomber was late to the game, the president escaped, the attacks were bloody and many and horrific. Violence is as common and as old as dirt.
Blinking away in the glowing rectangles I saw news and rumor and sympathy and panic. People offered their same views, but with the urgency of grave effect, restated in 140 and news-pegged to tragedy. My wife is on a weekend trip to visit friends and so I spent my time watching a small apocalypse get written into the first draft of history.
When I woke this morning, I saw alerts that people in my network in Paris checked-in safe. People in Grenoble, far from Paris but identically far New Mexico, checked in that they were safe, too. There were transparent flags in my timeline, and the machine asked if I wanted one too.
I put on the flag, my face held behind the tricolor’s stylized ripples, and I decided that I would wear this symbol for four days. It was odd, to be presented with a timer on mourning, so I did the whole process again, capturing pictures of the options on my phone as I went. I picked a week, the second time around.
My flagged face joined that of others in the my feed, and there were essays, too. One friend declared that all flags are used to cover violence, and so he wouldn’t partake. Another noted that there were more tragedies than just the multiple attacks in Paris, and so he wouldn’t don the flag himself either. They were both as right as they needed to be.
I sit at the edge of how we use technology, caring about social networks mostly when they change how we watch news and when they change how we react to events. The safe check-ins for disaster is a new-ish feature, but we’ve had enough disasters since it debuted that it feels common, good. A machine can tell if you’re in a geographically-denoted area of danger, asks if you are safe, and then publishes the answer if you are.
A flag for my face was new. The platform, Facebook itself, pushed it. I’d donned other symbolic avatar alterations in the past, like a green filter and ribbon for a squashed protest in Iran, but those were third-party services, offered by people with a stake. The flag was new, and it said that Paris was burning.
There are, as a rule, many places on fire at any given time.
Beirut burned, a day before Paris. The deadliest single bombing in the city since their civil war, and they mourned. I was not offered a cedar tree, on a field of white between two bands of red, to wear on my virtual face. France got a flag. Lebanon did not.
The story, here, for the journalist mining truth in tragedy, is that Paris was chosen as the debut of the flag feature. How long was the feature ready, we will ask, and why did the attacks in Paris merit its debut? We will hear answers, and they will be varying degrees of satisfying. We will ask, the next time a tragedy occurs, why we are offered flags, or why we aren’t. The answer will matter, and the biases inherent will be revealing.
“The logical response to the necessity of uneven mourning isn’t “there should be no more mourning at all,” either”, tweeted Faine Greenwood, a fellow journalist.
We cannot, by virtue of our very finite being, mourn every tragedy, or even know every tragedy. We are compelled to mourn, and we bound to mourn unevenly.
Facebook is mourning Paris more than Beirut right now, and it provided a tool to make it easier for those who wish to join in sympathy for France. That’s a decision to pick apart, to question, to call into account. Facebook may change how it offers sympathy tools; it may even have offered flags for tragedies I don’t know about. It can change, in part, how we mourn, and the tools we have for mourning.
We cannot change that mourning will be uneven.
I am here, a day after a terror attack, writing abstractly about a place I’ve never been and the deaths of people I’ve never met. My wife is in her home state for the weekend. She is there, in part, to mourn a friend, who died much too soon. When she boarded the Amtrak at 3:15 am, she knew her weekend would already have a portion devoted to mourning. It is deeply personal: a car accident, a protege from undergrad, a loss finite in its details and unfathomable in missed potential.
As I blanket my virtual face in a transparent filter of a foreign flag, there are hundreds if not thousands of similar, personal mournings happening this weekend. Terror inflicts wounds unevenly. War inflicts wounds unevenly. And so it is. We are, in this moment as in every moment, struck by that unevenness.
Technology cannot change that the mourning is uneven. Nothing, really, can change that. It can, if driven by its better angels, do more to make sure that the tools we use to mourn aren’t unevenly distributed.