Painful group memories and the news media's (potentially) curative powers

I've been semi-detached from the dread, anger, loss, and pain that have dominated American and international headlines the past two weeks while my wife and I traveled across the Iberian Peninsula's north.

But only semi.

Full detachment is impossible for me (a) because of the electronic communication devices I take with me on vacation, and (b) because of my obsessive newshound personality. The former allows me and the latter impels me to keep up -- at least to some degree -- with humanity's daily dose of self-inflicted trauma.

Spain and Portugal make it even easier for me to stay connected to this irrational state of affairs thanks to their particular histories. They abound with reminders of past injustices heaped upon the region's Jews, with which I fully identity. (Click here: I posted on this at the start of my trip.)

Human history seems a litany of communal hurts we never fully overcome. Not to mention that these hurts are continually updated.

In one Portuguese town -- Viana do Castello, just south of the Spanish border -- I parked next to a stone wall defaced by graffiti. The only parts of the scrawl I could decipher were the swastikas and the word "Sion," or Zion. I doubt the full message was complementary toward Jews or Israel.

Then there was this despicable anti-American, anti-Semitic and blatantly racist cartoon circulated by Spain's United Left political party, which holds eight seats in the nation's 360-member bicameral parliament (Click here for New York Times backgrounder). It was timed to coincide with President Barak Obama's brief visit to Spain last weekend. (Spain and Portugal now offer citizenship to foreign Jews of Sephardic ancestry, meaning those who can prove their families were forced out of Iberia during the Inquisition.)

I mention my experience as a prelude to commenting on a story published by The New York Times that reported international Muslim anger at perceived insufficient Western outrage and compassion toward terror attack victims in Bangladesh, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey during the just completed Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The premise of this Times story makes sense. Westerners do not react to terror attacks in Muslim nations with the same outrage as they do to attacks in France, Britain, Belgium or the United States (Israel's a toss up; I'll explain further below.)

Why? Because we feel greater compassion toward those with whom we most identify. And those we less identify with we feel less empathy toward, no matter how harsh their pain. In fact, we may even gloat. (This gets tricky, as we often tend to assign blame for our pain to others, even when our own failings are most at fault.)

The Abrahamic religious faiths may insist that we are all God's children, including those we feel less human connection toward, and perhaps even reject. And the Eastern traditions teach that we are all karmically connected, that how we treat others eventually impacts our own well being.

But they all seem to amount to little more than idealistic abstractions in periods such as we've experienced in recent days, when human disconnection has been far more obvious.

In journalistic terms, this means domestic tragedies -- such as the killings by white cops of black men in St. Paul and Baton Rouge, and the sniper attack in Dallas by a black man that claimed the lives of five white policemen -- will always garner more domestic media news coverage than bombs going off outside our borders.

The same principle applies to coverage of bombs going off in Western nations, including foreign ones, to which Western media -- including American media, of course -- more directly relate because of the obvious ethnic, racial, cultural and religious commonalities.

Moreover, we may also downplay attacks in Muslim nations because, rightly or not, we perceive it as comeuppance. (This is why ongoing, small-scale terrorist attacks against Israeli Jews receive relative little coverage in much of the Western press; many see this as understandable payback from Palestinians for Israeli government actions.)

One of the more surprising, though less deadly, recent attacks occurred in the Saudi city of Mecca, Islam's holiest city, despite an ongoing, massive security presence there. In fact, it was nothing new, as this piece from the Toronto Sun written by a Muslim columnist makes clear.

Yet Muslims (though perhaps not Sunni Saudi Arabia's Shiite rivals in Iran and elsewhere) view such an attack as being so sacriligeous and depraved that they profess to not understand how Westerners do not offer greater understanding.

For better or worse, this is just how people, and the press, function. We're all tribal (I know; I make this point repeatedly here at GetReligion) in some manner, starting at the family level, regardless of how politically or religiously astute and understanding we think we are.

Our tribe may be religiously, ethnically, racially, politically, sexually, financially, geographically or socially constructed, but our associations still tend to be weighted toward those we feel safest and closest toward.

I know this is how I function; witness my reaction to reminders of the Inquisition.

Does this make stories about victimized groups demanding that their humiliations and hurts be equally acknowledged redundant and not worth doing? Are stories such as this Times piece knee-jerk political correctness? Perhaps.

But such stories still need to be done. And done again.

Because one role of the press is curative. To remind humanity of its failures, in the hope -- slim though it may be -- that one more someone, somewhere might understand that people really do suffer over hurtful group memories. And hey, who knows, perhaps that person may be you, the reporter. We're just people in need of reminders, too.

Journalism can harden its practitioners to the pain of others. But it can also open us to the experience of those who are unlike us, perhaps even those with whom we have been or still are in conflict.

That last possibility is also a great reason to travel to historically conflicted places, while looking for ghosts.

IMAGE: By Ira Rifkin. This sign for a small hotel notes its location on the site of a former "Sinagoga del S. XV," which translates as synagogue from the 15th Century -- the date of the Inquisition. Its located  in the Spanish city of Avila's former Jewish quarter, now devoid of Jews. 

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