This morning, the BBC reported that the luxury Dusit hotel complex in Nairobi was attacked by four heavily armed members of al-Shabaab.  Fourteen people were killed including one American.  The event would have been dismissed entirely if not for the “including one American” portion, and the attack was barely covered by the US media because, well, if Black men killing each other in Chicago doesn’t make the news, then Black men killing people in Africa apparently isn’t news worthy.  With daily reporting of yet another Trump-tantrum as CNN’s clock counts the seconds of this nation’s longest government shutdown, as well as the constant updates about Jayme Closs, it’s hard to notice Brexit, Syrian suicide bombers and terrorist attacks in Africa. 

But what do the horrors of Jayme Closs and al-Shabaab have in common?  Sympathy.

Lately, I have been obsessed with Wisconsin.  A 21-year-old man, watching a 13-year-old girl get off the school bus, made a horrific decision.  It’s every parent’s nightmare:  to be unable to protect your child.  Unfortunately, victim blaming is a terrible side-effect of parental guilt, including the guilt felt by the cops who showed up 20 seconds too late, but no one ever expects to be hunted by a monster.  But what astounds me is not only the American obsession with a missing white girl but rather the complete indifference towards the kidnapping of 276 Nigerian school girls in 2014 by Boko Haram. 

Maybe it's because we are able to focus on and sympathize with a solitary face easier than the faceless masses.  Then what about the Black girl who was kidnapped in Cleveland or some other awful city several years ago and broke out through a basement window and made it home by lunch?  Seems that story never made national news.   

Maybe we need the word including for us to feel sympathetic, such as in this recent attack in Nairobi that killed over a dozen people, including an American.  Does the media function the same as compassion – our interest is only summoned when the victim looks like us, sounds like us and lives near us?  As I watched the news video of the attack in Kenya this morning, they interviewed a father who reported his daughter was inside the hotel complex.  In the background, members of the army marched in formation as smoked billowed from a bomb blast.   The man calmly stated he was worried about his daughter but, “My son is tough.  He’ll get her out.” 

This father was possibly about to lose both his son and daughter in the next few minutes, but belief (faith?) in the inevitable soothed his heart.  How could his optimism not strike a cord in the heart of every concerned parent, the same parents horrified by the murder of Jayme’s family as well as utterly relieved by the news of her self-induced rescue?  I’m not advocating that news should focus on happier, sunnier stories because people are fascinated by dark drama.  But how do we stimulate sympathy without relying on proximity?  

To learn how to care about people not because they live near us, or are American, can be difficult.  An even deeper reaction would be empathy, when their pain is visceral, felt right in the gut, and the victim’s optimism stretches beyond local neighborhoods to effect everyone regardless of creed or color, including us.  Maybe that’s what compassion feels like, to hear every news story and think, “that is happening to me.”   Sure, sympathy is difficult because we answer defensively:

  “The parents should have protected her” or;

      “The son shouldn’t have gone after his sister at that Kenyan hotel,” or;

         “That would never happen to me,” or even worse;

             “I don’t care because where is that country?" which may be the main reason why Americans suck at geography. 

Sympathy may be troublesome for many of us, but empathy?  Fuckin’ exhausting!