The Empathy Gap

By Grace Stevens


Earlier this year, on January 7th, French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked by two armed men claiming to work under al-Qaeda. 12 people were killed. The attack inspired the hashtag #jesuischarlie, advocating freedom of speech and freedom of the press. That week, world leaders gathered in Paris to mourn the death of the cartoonists and show their support against terrorism. On the same day, Nigerian Islamic extremist group Boko Haram killed roughly 2,000 people. Business Insider reported that civilians “gave up on trying to count all the bodies.” Yet a Google search of “Paris terrorist attacks” yields 37.8 million results while a search for the considerably more brutal “Boko Haram Nigeria attacks” yields 1.93 million.


More recently, on the evening of November 13, 2015, 129 lives were taken in Paris by members of ISIS (Islamist State in Iraq and Syria). The coordinated suicide bombings and shootings were enough to shock the world. Landmarks worldwide were lit in the colors of the French flag, Facebook profile pictures were changed, and hashtags such as #PrayforParis and #StayStrongParis dominated Twitter feeds.


At roughly the same time, on November 12 and 13, 2015, multiple suicide bombings occurred in Beirut, Lebanon and Baghdad, Iraq. In Beirut, 22 people, including one child, were killed in twin suicide bombings. In Baghdad, a roadside bombing at a Shiite shrine killed five people. A second bomb was set off killing 21 people at a memorial service for a Shiite militia fighter killed in battle against the Islamic State. No hashtags. No Lebanese or Iraqi flags covering our profile pictures. Why?


Perhaps it is our alleged “empathy gap.”


In an article published in the Huffington Post, Carolyn Gregoire explains that the “empathy gap” occurs because we tend to feel more compassionate toward disasters affecting people and places we feel familiar with, and especially for victims that we know more about. But we only know so much about the victims in Beirut and Baghdad because the media has not made ages, names, and faces as easily accessible as those victims of the Paris attacks. This information gap between the media and our emotions is vital to explaining how we empathize with victims of terrorism.


Many parts of the Middle East and Africa are plagued by what seems to be a conflict with no solution in sight. Lebanon experienced a two and a half decade civil war ending in 1990, and since then, continuous disruptions of peace including rocket attacks by Syrian forces and bomb attacks at two mosques have occurred. Iraq has been at war with Kuwait, the US (twice) and ISIS, all in the past 25 years alone. Yet our Facebook status overwhelmingly remembers those killed in Paris. We have become numb to those casualties in nations in which conflict kills innocent civilians on a daily basis. However, violence is not something that should be expected and dismissed, and should always be actively condemned.


If we feel compassion toward those we are familiar with, then perhaps the press could take more responsibility for bridging the emotional gap between the victims and the audience. To close this gap, it is essential that those casualties be humanized. We should stand with all of those affected and not just those given major publicity by the press.



Gregoire, Carolyn. “Explaining The ‘Empathy Gap’ In Our Reactions To Paris And Beirut.” Huffpost Science., 16 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

“Iraq: Suicide Bomb And Road Blast Kill 26 in Baghdad.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Mark, Monica. “Boko Haram’s ‘deadliest Massacre’: 2,000 Feared Dead in Nigeria.” The Guardian. Guardian News, 10 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

Withnall, Adam, and John Lichfield. “Charlie Hebdo Shooting: At Least 12 Killed as Shots Fired at Satirical Magazine’s Paris Office.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 8 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.