Photo: Tobias Schwartz/Getty Images

The Limits of Empathy

When tragedy strikes close to home



I grew up a few blocks from Breitscheidplatz, West Berlin’s main square and an unwieldy hashtag that trended on Twitter last month. The square is mostly known for the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church at its center — its bombed out roof the most distinctive feature of West Berlin’s otherwise unremarkable silhouette — as well as the schmaltzy Christmas market that unfolds around it in winter, with neat rows of wooden booths peddling generic seasonal kitsch and syrupy mulled wine. Until two weeks ago, when a young man with numerous priors, purportedly acting on behalf of ISIS, plowed through said market in a truck, killing 12, and transforming Breitscheidplatz into a symbol — an odd sensation when you know a place so well.

Reading maudlin op-eds about a place where I spent a good chunk of my childhood, I experienced a kind of cognitive dissonance. This was a place that smelled consistently of old beer and ancient piss; where wily Albanian drug dealers sold hashish they called “zero zero,” which gave you cold sweats; where west German tourists’ alcoholized joviality turned menacing; where a man with facial dystrophy pulled his bottom lip over his nose, while playing the accordion, demanding donations; where a raving old lady sat on the church steps once a week and thundered about her right to sleep with teenagers; where I jumped in the fountain to fish out change people had thrown in for good luck; where the drug dealers refused to sell me “piece” because I was too young; where I bought a gingerbread heart and saved it for months until it turned rock hard, at which point I used it as a weapon against my brother, or with my brother in our epic battles against our cousins. Breitscheidplatz was and to me always will be an icon of trashy West Berlin.

The ruined church at its center is magnificent, though. By accident  – I don’t recall how old I was – I once visited the permanent exhibition inside it, where aerial photos of the church prior to its bombing by Allied warplanes were on display. The church’s previous incarnation, with its orderly surroundings, looked austere by comparison — its narrow gothic steeple a nagging symbol of the old Germans, who wagged their bony fingers and chastised young people for putting their feet up on the subway upholstery. My confidence in the necessity of a war that had humbled German expansionism, while granting the city a monument of such timeless beauty, soared. This aesthetic byproduct of corrective bombing was a symbol of a postwar West Germany that had decided to retain rather than subvert evidence of its ugly past, a Germany in which histories overlap and occasionally collide, like generations of old and young Germans riding the same subway.

Watching the news of the Christmas market attack from my other home in Beirut, I felt no heightened bereavement because of my biographical ties to that place. I even felt slightly irritated by all the Berliners-of-choice that checked in as “safe” on Facebook, as if they have any relationship to or know anything about that area, its political past, its societal particularities. As if violence isn’t usually hyper-localized, and no, it couldn’t have been you, and that’s not the point in any case.

One reason for this may be that I know the Christmas market crowd quite well and don’t really identify with them (a lack of empathy toward a certain type of German or a certain type of tourist). Another might be that I don’t fear getting hit by a truck (an arrogance of fate or inflated confidence in my own abilities to narrowly escape a certain kind of pointless death). The third and most probable one is that it was only a matter of time before this happened, given the stakes and the forces aligned to disrupt and incite, and how dare anyone be shocked.

What I think it boils down to is that I am increasingly impatient with people who still cannot fathom a life of relative insecurity or precarity, who feel entitled to lead one, and yet want to feel a part of the world that isn’t so fortunate. This isn’t about the “chickens coming home to roost”; rather, it’s about bemoaning that we can’t remain an exception, that we too must learn what it feels like not to have control over or feel safe in “our own” environment. And then those same people want to experience excitement and tragedy at arm’s length, as if they suddenly finally brushed up against political violence and have leveled the privilege field a bit with hashtag Aleppo, at no cost, because feeling bad or guilty for your good fortune is tedious.

In our social media-centered information bubble, there is no space or time for actual grieving. After any incidence of political violence, we are immediately inundated by hokey collective affectation and toxic opportunism. Our most dangerous politicians take advantage of these moments, and our most annoying friends do too. The rest of us read an unhealthy amount of news and wait for the predictable backlash.

Seven hours after the attack, at four in the morning, two hundred special commando forces raided Berlin’s largest refugee camp having falsely detained a Pakistani man who was registered there. The man had been running to catch the subway, and a witness at the attack site had followed him and alerted the police who then published sufficient details about him (age first name, last initial, country of origin) to render him identifiable. The man later told the Guardian that he was beaten by police and severely mishandled during interrogation. Thousands of people who have fled state and political violence reside in that camp, stormed by turbocops in the middle of the night. That is also terror.

Terror, in any case, is a personal matter that correlates to a kind of meta-identity. Gays are murdered in Iraq – I’m gay. Children died – I’m a mother. A marathon was bombed – I’m a runner. Who am I, in any configuration of violence?  But despite my association with Breitscheidplatz, I cannot claim to identify particularly with the deceased. Nor can most of my Berlin Facebook friends. As a meta-demographic, we are more likely (though, statistically entirely unlikely) to experience an attack on an international airport or a subway or a nightclub. But unless you identify your personal horror scenario – getting ice-picked while least expecting it on the toilet is mine – as the worst thing to happen ever, then there are no hierarchies of injustice based on location or occasion. Civilians are civilians, whether Afghanis are droned at a wedding or bus boys at the restaurant in the World Trade Center.

The quest to derive meaning from tragedies directly correlates to the moral parameters of a society. In the case of American foreign policy, meaning often implies the promise of cathartic revenge. In Germany, it is now being used to question the wisdom of allowing refugees into the country. This quest for meaning demands symbols. Breitscheidplatz, a symbol for a turning point – the day the “mood tipped” against the newcomers, as tabloids writers and respectable opinionmakers have predicted. But these were mostly non-Berliners chiming in on what was clearly a Berlin matter.

Reading posts and articles describing the prevailing calm in the streets the following day, the shrugging off fear, that particular Berlin snark, a large gathering of demonstrators at the site to counter a far smaller protest by anti-immigration right-wingers, I remember for a moment that Berlin is resilient, that Berlin is in fact long accustomed to precarity, that Berlin is home.