Let me start by saying I respect your right to do so, if it helps you express your grief and outrage. But I won’t do it myself, for several reasons.
Firstly, I don’t believe that UK or European or US lives are worth more than other lives. I don’t find terrorist outrages on “our” soil to be more shocking or tragic or devastating than those that happen in other parts of the world where violence and suffering maybe even more common place. I do find it shocking and saddening that so many people, including people I know, think “we” are somehow better and more valuable than “them”.
Therefore, if I create a London or Manchester or Paris avatar, I have to do it for every attack that happens everywhere in the world. And they are too numerous, and it becomes meaningless. It is meaningless. It doesn’t help.
Around the same time as the recent Manchester and London attacks, there were two bombs that were far worse in terms of the scale of devastation and numbers of lives destroyed, in Afghanistan and Syria. For the individuals involved, of course, the impact is the same. The bus bombing in Syria was particularly hard to hear about because at least 68 children were killed. The tragedy and suffering is incomprehensible. I actually can’t bear to think about it.
The second reason I won’t make avatars about terrorist attacks is that it makes the tragedy about me, rather than about the people it’s about. Let me explain.
A year or two ago, I saw some photos on Facebook that were so upsetting to me that they turned my life upside-down for several days. I remember sobbing uncontrollably on the tube on the way to a work meeting because what I had seen was just too awful for me to process. Writing this now, I’m crying again, thinking about those pictures. They were images taken by ISIS men of other ISIS men murdering children. I’m going to describe them, so skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to read about them.
One child was being crucified. A toddler the same age as one of my own kids at the time was staring incomprehensibly into the barrel of a shotgun moments before the gun was fired. The look on his face was a mix of fear, confusion and trust. Trust. There were pictures of the men taking the bodies of the babies they had just slaughtered and dumping them in a pile. But the way they carried them was almost tender – one arm under their neck, the other under their knees, as if carrying their own child asleep.
They did these things and they took pictures and then posted them online. And when I saw the pictures, it was just a few days later. I knew that these weren’t just images, they were real children, just like my own children. It stopped me being able to function for a bit.
Around this time, a friend told me about a prayer that covers pretty much any situation: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.” I repeated this in my head like a mantra. I said it to the children in the photos. I said it to their families. I thanked them for their valuable lives. I said it to everyone everywhere who suffers like those children and their families suffered. I said it to the ISIS men in the photos, because they are part of humanity, and they more than anyone need light. I said it to God. I said it to me. And eventually it did help. It brought me back to a place whereby I was able to go about my business.
And then something dawned on me. I realised that everyday since the beginning of history, children have been abused and murdered. It goes on all the time all around the world. It’s happening somewhere right now. There has never been a day that a child was not brutalised and killed. The ONLY difference on this occasion was that I saw the photos. So my reaction was actually about me. And it didn’t help those children. And – less importantly – it didn’t help me either. Quite the opposite.
So now I don’t create avatars about other people’s tragedies because they aren’t about me. I still care very deeply about them though.
A third reason is that avatars last for a few days, until they get replaced by the next cause célèbre, or they just feel a bit stale and out of date. But people involved in these tragedies do not move on after a few days. The effects for them are permanent. So while posting an avatar might look like a show of solidarity and support when you upload it, when you remove it, it looks very much like a removal of that support. How must it feel if you’ve been directly affected by an act of devastating violence to see all the avatars disappear? To know that everyone else has moved on and is beginning to forget about it? To find that your grief is no longer valid or interesting to others?
These are my reasons. Each to their own. To those around the world impacted by terrorism, or suffering some other kind of grief or trauma, I say I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.