United in grief

What we witnessed during the first twelve hours after the attack was the best of many worlds — media exhibited a rare sensibility, political leaders displayed statesmanship and people were resilient under threat

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST

Published - November 16, 2015 01:42 am IST

It was a ghastly Saturday morning to wake up to. The dastardly attacks in Paris claimed many innocent lives, maimed and injured civilians out to celebrate their weekend and unleashed a sense of fear and despair among the citizens of the world. I was gripped with an additional anxiety: how will media handle this terror attack. Will it make things worse? Will it respect the privacy and the dignity of the victims? Will it eschew that gnawing voyeuristic streak? I was reminded of a note from Rajani Thiranagama a couple of months before her assassination in 1989:

“You want events, numbers, case histories?

Not now please, because my mind is strangled.

That is what we live.

Pain, agony and fear – always fear.

I ask you, could you write straight

When people die in lots?

When you find them dead like flies.”

But the public sphere was much more considerate and humane in responding to this tragedy. International news agencies, 24x7 digital platforms, legacy media and social media stood as one to piece the information together, refrained from prying, provided details of various helplines, including the telephone numbers of embassies, and the accent was on the safety of the survivors.

The steady flow of news did not undermine the finer qualities of the human beings who were subjected to their worst nightmare. The Associated Press reported that as news of bloodshed filtered through the crowd and police sirens wailed outside, thousands of soccer fans milled around the Stade de France, reluctant to leave the seemingly safe stadium. The spectators didn’t panic, despite hearing the sounds of explosions that left more than a hundred killed in multiple acts of violence. But there was plenty of unease and tension, the agency recorded.

Political response

International political leaders stepped up the game and became statesmen. There was a general sense of solidarity with the people of France. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday condemned “the despicable terrorist attacks carried out today in various locations in and around Paris,” and demanded “the immediate release of the numerous individuals reportedly being held hostage in the Bataclan theatre.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, saying that the “news from Paris is anguishing and dreadful. Prayers with families of the deceased. We are united with people of France in this tragic hour.” U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, saying that the attack was not just on France but on all of humanity and universal values and also pledged to work with France to bring those responsible to justice.

People deployed social media not only to share news but to offer comfort and shelter. Parisians used #PorteOuverte (open doors) to offer shelter to strangers and according to Reuters, the hashtag trended globally, with more than 400,000 Tweets using it within few hours since its creation. “This account will be used for tweeting and retweeting places to stay safe tonight,” said a post from @PorteOuverteFRA, a Twitter handle opened within hours of the attacks. One tweet rather insightfully read: “Parisians open their homes. Search #PorteOuverte if needed. This is why terrorists will never win; they can’t take our humanity.” This particular intervention managed to get maximum traction because almost all the major media sites flagged the creation of #PorteOuverte. It was a great moment of not just coexistence between the legacy media and the new media but a symbiotic one that reaffirmed the strengths of each of them to reach out to more people.

I have a range of complaints against Facebook and its Internet.org and never thought that any initiative by it would touch me deeply. But its #SafetyCheck was a remarkable intervention. Facebook users who were in Paris during the terror attacks were able to notify friends and family that they were safe through the sites’ ‘Safety Check’ tool. The ‘Safety Check’ tool was launched in 2014 and has been used five times and this was the first time the feature has been used in a non-natural disaster setting.

“We are shocked and saddened by the events unfolding in Paris. Communication is critical in these moments both for people there and for their friends and families anxious for news,” Facebook said in a statement.

The usual cleavage in information space — mainstream media and social media — gave way to become a site for compassion, understanding, sharing and partaking in the sense of loss. What we witnessed during the first twelve hours after the attack was indeed the best of many worlds — media, especially television, exhibited a rare sensibility; political leaders displayed statesmanship; people were resilient under threat and extended mutual support.

Already there are signs of this matured approach being overrun by hotheads seeking revenge rather than justice. How I wish the information ecology remained mature and humane eternally.


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