Last weekend marked another moment in history where years down the line people will remember exactly where they were when it happened. Everyone knows where they were when Princess Diana died. I remember my mum and aunts gathered around the TV weeping.
Everyone knows where they were when the Twin Towers were hit. I remember being picked up from school by my ashen faced mother and driven home to watch on TV as the second tower was hit. I remember being 11-years-old standing there in my school uniform having no idea what was happening to the world.
This past Friday the 13th I was watching a movie under a pile of blankets hiding from the world because of my own self-imposed superstitions that because my parents were married on a Friday the 13th the date is inherently cursed for me. Turns out it was a cursed day on a much bigger scale. At around 10 p.m. I got a text from my boyfriend saying “Have you seen what’s happening in Paris? Turn on the news right now.”
His roommate was on vacation there and thankfully he had heard back from her pretty quickly saying she was okay. Then we racked our brains trying to think of who else we knew over there.
Cue Facebook’s incredibly helpful “check in” system during disasters where you can register yourself as safe. I logged on to see six friends had been marked as safe. Then I was glued to Sky News for the night watching the horrific events unfold.
As a regular human being, the thoughts going through my brain ranged from sympathy and sadness to anger and fear. As a human being lucky enough to live in Ireland, I have to admit that I felt some relief. As a neutral country we are significantly safer from terrorist targeting than many of our Western neighbors.
I felt more fear for people in France, London and New York than anything else. Given that my parents were in New York at the time I checked in with them straight away to make sure they were flying direct back to Ireland and didn’t have to go through Gatwick or any other potentially targeted zones.
As someone who watches the news and engages on certain topics and events but who is – by my own admission – not the most informed person, or not as informed as I could be, I got to thinking about what this kind of activity means for the general public.
What participation do regular people have in these catastrophic world events? What contribution can we make? How are we supposed to react to the sensationalist, graphic and disturbing news being funneled into our living rooms? Are we just ineffectual pawns, victims and reactionaries?
By Saturday afternoon, Facebook’s homepage was flooded with people changing their profile pictures to include a colored hologram of the French Flag over the existing photo. I jumped on the bandwagon without putting a huge amount of thought into it, feeling like it was a general sign of sympathy, support and solidarity.
On Sunday afternoon, I got a text from a friend remarking on the fact that I had changed my photo, jokingly saying that she was “ashamed!” Please note, this is no reflection on my friend’s humanity, but is due to my usual state of cynicism and general berating of social media trends that serve mainly to glorify the individual as they make the most hilarious Ice Bucket Challenge video or post the most beautiful no make-up selfie with little or no awareness as to what charitable cause they are inadvertently supporting.
Heated debates on political topics via social media is up there on my list of pet peeves so I responded with a simple “I’m being nice. I like France” and then changed the subject -- but it did get me thinking.
What is the place of social media when a neighboring country declares a state of national emergency and has just suffered its most brutal act of violence since World War II? Could the people of France care less if a bunch of neutral Irish strangers have changed their profile picture on Facebook?
My feeling on it is that because the public are generally unheard when it comes to war, disasters and the government’s reactions to such, that social media becomes the only outlet where opinions can be expressed – yelled, shouted, screamed – and sure, 99.99 percent of them are garbage, fear mongering and misinformed nonsense, but perhaps there is some consolation in peaceful wordless acts of solidarity like the incorporation of a French flag into one’s online presence.
There’s no democratic vote on whether or not to fight back. There’s no referendum on whether they should bomb Syria and then wait for whatever consequences that incurs. There’s no access to all of the hidden TOP SECRET information that informs the decisions of the powers that be.
The public are the targets, the innocent victims, the bystanders. If France decides to declare war or is attacked by terrorists, the French people have absolutely no say in the matter. Similarly, the Irish can’t exactly step in and lend a helping hand or we forego our neutrality.
The way I see it is that if Ireland had been viciously attacked and we were living in a state of fear and panic, seeing a bunch of our neighboring countries publicly expressing some form of solidarity and unity via social media could be some source of comfort. I’m sure the figures will be consolidated into some statistic that will say how many thousands of people have done it, and that might make someone somewhere feel a little less isolated or alone.
We can’t be naive enough to think that it will have the power to change anything as this is very much out of our hands. But from one group of humans to another, it can just be a simple sign that we recognize their pain. Because what else can we do?
In Paris, there was a memorial which quickly turned to a state of panic. People have been lining up to donate blood to the injured survivors. People are continuing to line up bouquets and candles and placards around the world.
Different cities are lighting their iconic buildings with the colors red, white and blue. Individuals who don’t know how else to help but want to express some act of hope are lighting up their faces online with the same colors.
The bottom line is, it can’t do any harm -- and there is no room for cynicism here.
Read more: A war of the world - ISIS will not win