Empathy

I can still remember exactly where I was on September 11th 2001 – picking up some clothes from the dry cleaners on Chetwynd Road. The radio was on, a reporter was saying how people in the south tower had been told to stay put. It didn’t really make any sense so I asked the man behind the counter if he knew what was going on.

‘A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.’

It still didn’t make sense but his words were weird enough for me to tell him, ‘I will never forget you or this moment.’ Fifteen years later this is still true. I can remember everything about that moment, except what clothes I had gone in to pick up. The mirror on the wall, the man’s face, the sickly chemical smell, the words of the radio reporter. I went home and switched on the television just in time to see the first tower fall. I called my friend Erin who lived next door. ‘Switch on the television,’ was all I was able to say.

Exactly one week earlier we had been sitting on the steps of 1 World Trade Center. We’d been in New York for a party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of my husband’s family’s arrival in New York. This proximity was extraordinarily difficult to compute and came to seem highly significant, even though rationally I understood that it was insignificant compared to the experiences of people who lived there, who had seen the towers hit, watched them collapse, who had friends or acquaintances or loved ones who were killed. For weeks afterwards, as we sat stunned in front of the unending parade of horrific images on the television, my four year old son built towers  out of lego and then smashed them down with his toy planes. I was too distressed to think coherently about whether I should be hiding the images from him, though I am comforted now that fourteen years later he has no memory of that time at all.

On November 13th, as bullets and bombs ripped through bars and restaurants and the Bataclan and the Stade de France, I recognised that same strange urge for proximity, that same pressing need for connection. People I am no longer really in contact with were sending me messages on Twitter and Facebook from all over the world to check that I was ok. I was moved by their messages. Less so, in the days and weeks that followed, by articles by journalists who were nowhere near Paris that night, almost always affirming that the 10th and 11th arrondissements were where they had once lived, or at least knew someone who had once lived, or had perhaps been to a restaurant near there at some point in the previous couple of weeks or months or even years.

Invited to write by a couple of newspapers I succumbed to the same urge to place myself in proximity to the events. I had in fact been pretty close by that evening, in the 10th arrondissement, at what one of the other journalists who happened to be there described later as ‘that now well-documented dinner party… a circle of light in a very dark moment.’ Although I count myself exceptionally fortunate not to have known anyone caught up in the events, in the weeks since I have come to hear of many friends who lost friends that night.

I realise now that this need to be connected, to be personally affected in some way, to filter the shock through our own experiences and memories, is the most deeply human response to tragedy and horror. As the catastrophe of the refugee crisis continues to unfold, as war in Syria, terror attacks in Nigeria and Turkey and Beirut and Paris and elsewhere continue to destroy lives and devastate entire countries, we are at our most human when our shock turns to empathy. Empathy is what brings volunteers to Calais to work in the Jungle. Empathy is what convinces people to continue to fight injustice – especially now in France where a muscular debate is currently taking place over the government’s proposal to enshrine in the constitution a law to strip dual citizens suspected of involvement in terror of their French nationality. Empathy is what got people out onto the streets of Paris during the COP21 barely two weeks after the Bataclan attacks. Fear turns people inwards, empathy is what keeps people looking outwards.

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