Instant Tragification

Biology, Level II.

When I was 15, I was a sophomore in high school, and it was while I was participating in a remedial biology lab exercise that our clunky, 60’s television screen clicked on and showed us the now infamous footage of two planes plunging headlong into two twin towers. A time and place I will not soon forget. Although I was 1,200 some odd miles away from New York City, I still felt that shock wave, rippled out from the city that never sleeps as our normal day came to a screeching halt and we in American proverbially wandered around, confused and in shock.

Then & Now

When I sat down at my computer in September of 2001, this is what the internet looked like:

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This past Friday, I was goofing off at work, feeling a little case of the FriDaze a bit too early in the day. Recently, I’ve noticed that I’ve stopped checking the news as much as I used to while I was collecting material for the ever-informative Weekly Passport column. In an attempt to remedy that, I added a couple of news apps back onto my phone and opted in for notifications. So on this past Friday, while I continued goofing off, munching on donuts, and discussing the important details of what kind of sweets to serve at my wedding, a panicked little phone sound followed by a panicked little glow caught my attention and, frankly, I welcomed the distraction.

Photograph: Bilal Hussein/AP
                  Photograph: Bilal Hussein/AP

But this kind of distraction….This kind of distraction had already happened this week. My phone cried out for attention when two bombs went off in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 43 people on their way out from evening prayers at a mosque, and wounding more than 200. This kind of distraction happened a couple of weeks ago, when an alert told me that a plane was downed by a bomb in Egypt, killing all 224 people on board. How could these kind of horrific things keep happening, week after week, notification after notification?

I didn’t know anybody in New York on 9-11. Nobody who tragically passed was in any way, shape, or form related to me. But it still made me feel weird. As descriptive and over-talkative as I tend to be, I have no other word to describe that day other than the word weird. And this past Friday, a Friday the 13th no less, gave me some serious shades of that deeply buried 9-11 weirdness.

I don’t need a screen shot to show you what the internet looked like on Friday, because as I type, there are reminders plastered on every cyber corner. I saw a video clip featuring the sound of one explosion during the exhibition soccer match in Paris before the attacks had even ended. News outlet apps, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook can be dragged down, popped, and refreshed with real-time, live-action updates as they happen. Not only do we have instant access to the words of journalists on the ground, but we also have user-uploaded content to browse, giving us a front row seat to all of the action (and all of the misery, carnage, violence, and bloodshed). We live in a digital world of Instant Tragification.

The hyperlinks to news articles on Yahoo in 2001 didn’t even have photos to back them up and help sensationalize the story.

A-Twitter with Kindness

Back in September 2001, after my school day ceased to be and I was scooped up by my dad and taken home, we sat in front of the tv waiting for updates, nobody directly affected, but everybody feeling weird. In 2015, I am constantly refreshing Twitter for the latest breaking updates from various sources, discussing the latest numbers with my boss/future father in law. Image after violent image splashes across my screen as I scroll through my newsfeed on the train ride home. The long dormant feeling of “the fear” came back, causing me to look around and shift my eyes, concerned that at any moment, the thing might run off the rails, or worse, blow up.

But in between the mass hysteria and carnage, I see the internet rallying together for good. I see the internet being used for the sole purpose of being nice, and doing something nice for someone else. In the middle of the chaos, Parisians used the hash tag #PorteOuverte to offer their houses to those who were scattered, cut off from transportation, or just running and scared. Porte Ouverte, which means open door in French, caught on and spread through the internet like a high-speed train. All of a sudden, social media went from a vapid, seemingly useless void of narcissistic soap boxes, to an instantaneous way of offering help to a stranger in need.



Whether or not #PorteOuverte did its job connecting people in need with those willing to help (check out this interesting Al-Jazeera piece on the online support vs. the support of locals in the streets of Paris), the sentiment was there and it brought a little positivity and light into an otherwise heinous day.

Examining “The Fear.” What is it & Where does it come from?

It’s times like these that foster hate. They foster xenophobia and wariness, like my eyes shifting back and forth on the train. This is all part of “the fear,” the “if you see something, say something” mentality of a post 9-11 world. When I moved to New York in the spring of 2006, five years had already slid by since the attacks of 9-11 and all of the New Yorkers around me had fallen into a groove of protocol. But to a naive, sheltered 19-year-old from a suffocatingly loving Cuban family, the constant signs telling me to keep an eye on my surroundings more than did their job. It got to the point where my stomach tied up in knots if I noticed somebody’s left over take out food bag resting on a train seat, leftover and forgotten. The sound of a beeping digital watch could cause me to lose focus on everything else around me on the train, as I waited for what I thought was the impending moment of doom. It’s times like these that make us fear the other and all of the unknown things they bring along. Times like these provide the perfect temperate zone to spawn a particularly heinous breed of hate mongering troll.


The latest is blaming the attacks in Paris on Syrian refugees. Just one scroll through any news outlet’s Instagram photo comments or tweet replies will give you an idea of the kind of hatred being spewed towards people who are ALSO fleeing this same exact kind of violence, violence which they are faced with every single day. There are also those who say this is uniquely a Muslim problem, pointing their typing fingers at any and all violent extremists clinging to Islam and using that to paint a biased picture of a huge and diverse group of people. But this is not a Muslim problem, this is not a refugee problem, this is a human problem. Beirut is a perfect example. If this is a Muslim problem, then why would Muslims end up victims of terrorism as well? Why would a group of people leaving a mosque lose their lives for nothing more than simply being in the wrong, Hezbollah-affliated place at the wrong time. These killers are hateful, wicked human beings, masquerading behind the ideals of others in a vain attempt to make their hate legitimate. Don’t let them warp your whole perception of an entire group of people. They are called extremists specifically because their thoughts and actions are extreme and beyond the norm of the group to which they belong. And try not to listen to the trolls, either. Boiling this down to black and white and blaming Muslims and/or refugees is just as hateful as the villainous rhetoric of ISIS and its cohorts.

Think Before You Share

Then there’s the other offender. The crusader. The quick-share trigger finger. In the past 48 hours, I have seen a BBC article circulating from back in April. Somali militant group Al-Shabab attacked a University in Garissa, Kenya, storming the school and indiscriminately killing Christian students (check out our coverage on Weekly Passport). The people sharing and re-sharing this article are clearly not looking at the date the article was published. Instead, they chastise those mourning with France using this article and saying that the general public doesn’t care when something like this happens in Africa. What’s misleading is that sharing that article with lecture attached is making it seem like that event happened at the same time as the attacks in Paris, which is simply not the case. People who are re-circulating this story in order to prove a point are actually just as guilty as those they seek to chastise. When the tragedy actually happened back in April, were those crusaders as quick to share, or were those crusaders just as uninformed as those who mourn France but forget to mourn Russia and Lebanon?

Why Do We Practice Selective Grieving & How Can We Correct It?

Did the violence in Paris strike a chord with you? Good news! You have a soul! Now we need to take it onto step two – apply your new-found empathy to all stories with the same plot. Spread the news, raise awareness. We must learn to recognize our knee-jerk biases in order to correct them. If Paris made you “feel some typa way,” use that feeling to explore what else happened in the world around you this week. Strip everything away in order to see other victims simply as your fellow human beings, going about their day before death followed them home. 43 people are dead in Beirut. 224 people were blown up in a plane after heading home from vacation. Some have died, others are injured, fatherless, motherless, brotherless, and childless. Surely we can feel for others when we feel so strongly for the people of Paris. In fact, we must, because our selective mourning isn’t lost on those whose suffering was skipped:

“When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag,” Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor, 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.” (New York Times)

Make sure to vet your news sources, people! Don’t just click and share – click, read, then decide whether or not to share. It’s important to know the source of your information.

Are you one of those who already knew about Beirut when it happened? Great! You’re one step closer to becoming a globally aware citizen. Now go ahead and talk to friends who may be struggling. Don’t stay silent when you hear unfounded racist theories. Need someone to point you in the right direction? Catch up with last Saturday’s Bucket List piece for respectful ways to broach the subject with friends. Our united, common humanity will get us through. It is what makes us the same, not what makes us different, that will overcome the hatred and fear spread by terrorists.

Don’t get outraged when you see selective grieving. Understand that this grieving is based in truth and it is coming from a good place. Don’t chastise and lecture, instead, teach and inform. The fact that so many people can feel compassion isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it is definitely not something we should discourage. Use this opportunity to expand on those feelings and tap into them in order to make us a more just, informed, and unified global community.

Fighting the Fear

I’m putting it out there, Ambassadors. In the wake of recent events, let’s not lose this momentum. To hell with the 24-hour news cycle (which, by the way, isn’t always accurate. On Friday, I heard the 2004 Madrid attack referred to as 7/7, not to mention the constant death toll competition, as if that makes any given situation more horrific than another). If Paris is your gateway drug to empathy, then by all means, roll with it! Sign up for AP News alerts, or daily emails from your favorite (vetted!) news source. May we suggest Weekly Passport? We round-up relevant global news every Tuesday, giving you a great way to stay informed on-the-go!

For all the time we devote to endless social media scrolling, we can set aside about ten minutes a week to catching up with global news. Finding a relevant or interesting news piece is always possible in the vast annuls of social media, but each and every one of us should strive to be as informed as that one Facebook friend who is constantly posting new articles (we all have one…or ten).

A lot of us felt weird this weekend. But we can channel those weird feelings and turn them into empathy and compassion for all those who suffer, not just in the west, but all over the world. While ISIS uses the power of the Internet to spread hate, fear, intolerance, and shame, we can use it for the powers of good! We can use the world-wide web to connect, inform, educate, learn, laugh, share, support, and engage.

In a time of global tragedy, I can’t help but think of Kurt Vonnegut, an American writer with a unique view of humanity, and an original, refreshing voice of anti-violence and reason. I leave you with some of his words to get you through the rest of this week:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—G** damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” — from  God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)


Click Here for Ways You Can Help in Paris Right Now!
Super Sweet Old School Internet Images: The Way Back Machine (If you're looking to see what the internet looked like in any given year since its birth, simply search a website and choose a year. They store screen shots of the internet that'll blow your mind with progress.)

“Field Notes” is weekly global news commentary by columnist Victoria Freyre. To stay up to date on current events and the latest posts from this series, follow #fieldnotes on our other platforms, and check back regularly for updates.



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