As the world watched the tragic burning of Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15, my social media feed quickly filled with holiday photos in front of the iconic church. There was a collective mourning and shared grieving as we saw the horrified faces of people in the streets watching the spire burn, history being taken before our eyes.
Having visited Paris nearly half a dozen times, from my early teens to as recently as last spring, every trip included a visit to the gothic cathedral. I have respect not only for its historic beauty, but being married to a Catholic, Notre Dame holds personal significance as well and I have many memories attached to it.
However, as I witnessed the outpouring of support to rebuild the great landmark, resulting in donations of between $835 million to more than $1 billion (All dollars U.S.), I wondered if we would feel similar devastation if a historic temple or mosque was struck with such tragedy.
And then on April 21, Easter Sunday, something even more horrific happened. Not one, not two, but three Catholic churches were bombed in Colombo, Sri Lanka, along with multiple hotels and cafes, in a series of coordinated attacks, resulting in over 250 deaths and 500 injuries. It was not an 800-year-old building at stake, it was 750 human lives.
However, according to Google Trends within 24 hours of both incidents, the Notre Dame fire recorded between five and nine times more search interest than the Sri Lanka attacks. Google Trends also showed that worldwide search interest was at least six times greater for the keywords “Notre Dame” over “Sri Lanka” during this past week.
Do we value the history and heritage of western society more than other parts of the world?
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One possible reason for the heightened interest in Notre Dame is the “closer to home” sentiment it holds for Western audiences, according to Al Jazeera’s data and SEO analyst, Gabriele Kahlout. However, Australia (which held a significantly high interest in Notre Dame comparative to Sri Lanka) is actually closer in distance to Sri Lanka than France. So, do we define home culturally or geographically?
Personally, even though I hold great affection for the city of Paris and Notre Dame Cathedral, I felt a much deeper sadness watching the loss of human life in Sri Lanka, a place I have never visited and do not have any personal connection with.
Unlike a building, which can and is being re-built, those lives lost in Sri Lanka are irreplaceable. Whereas President Macron personally promised during a TV address, “We will rebuild Notre Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years,” we cannot say we will bring back those 253 lives in 2023. Those lives have been taken forever, and their families permanently damaged. And while I certainly feel both are tragedies, and the notions of tragedy and grief are not exclusive — it begs the question whose lives are valuable and why?
The reaction to the fire in Paris has stirred debate about whether “we — citizens of affluent Western countries — experience as much collective grief about cultural tragedies that occur outside the West as we feel about the Notre-Dame fire,” wrote George Morgan, an associate professor at the University of Western Sydney. I feel it and it doesn’t sit well.
I can’t relate — they’re not like me
As a society, we tend to turn away from tragedies that are not relatable, but this feels so very relatable on so many levels. How many of us were at religious services on Sunday morning, and for many Catholics, an Easter Sunday service? How many of us have sat leisurely in a cafe for a weekend brunch? How many of us have been on spring holidays with our families? There were innocent men, women and children, like you and me, doing things that so many of us have done, who were targeted and killed or injured in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday.
And while we have been well informed from a news perspective, I feel at a loss from a human perspective as to why there is not more concern for these lives that were lost doing those very things so many of us have can relate to, regardless how many miles away they are.
I am grateful for the tremendous outpouring of love for Notre Dame. My wish is that those philanthropists and members of the wealthy elite who have donated to Notre Dame feel that same compassion to donate to tragedies like the ones in Sri Lanka, because we are all more connected and “close to home” — that home which is our shared humanity — than we may like to believe.