Selective sympathy: the same price of a life is shared by all of us


France, the Netherlands, Finland, Hungary, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, the UK, Italy, Peru, Bulgaria, Poland, Ireland, Palestine, Japan and Ukraine. Within the group of 63 Erasmus students who were victims of the bus crash near Barcelona on Sunday, there were 19 different nationalities. Heartbreakingly, 13 of those making the trip to Valencia for Las Fallas, the annual firework festival, never returned. As Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s president declared two days of mourning in respect of the tragedy, it is a time for reflection and contemplation.

Firstly, every single member of the Erasmus network, whether alumni or currently abroad, here in Durham or elsewhere, shares in the suffering of this event. Our hearts and thoughts are with each person on that coach and the families of the victims who must be in a state of absolute shock and trauma right now. The worst part is, with the delay in identification and the ongoing reaction to the crash, some of those left at home may not even yet know the worst possible news. I can only imagine the pain that must be felt for those awaiting any confirmation of their loved ones well being.

An Erasmus year is packed with positive experience: new people, new friends, new places, new relationships. The opportunity to live abroad independently for the first time. Spain is quite simply a superb country to set out to for an Erasmus year. Constant summer sun and warmer winters, it is an alien clime for a dormant, indigenous Durhamer like our cold northern souls. Sufficiently large to excite, yet compact and interconnected enough to explore thoroughly, Spain is one of the most popular destinations for outgoing students. The bus crash resonates horribly precisely because it could have happened any time, anywhere, to anyone.

For this to happen to a group of students aged between 22 and 29, representing a large number of countries, both European and international, makes this a shared tragedy on a global scale. Yet, out of basic human compassion, it seems dishonest to exaggerate the situation in the light of the terrorist attacks and suicide bombings in Turkey. They have claimed the lives of many more. The loss of life in Spain is so small when compared to the Turkish tragedies. Just last Sunday, suicide bombers killed thirty seven at a bus stop in Ankara. That makes a rising tally of over two hundred deaths since July. But they are not mere statistics, ever increasing death tolls to ignore in an apathetic shrug of the shoulder. Our common humanity extends sympathy to every victim of needless death, whether accidental or at the hands of terrorism.

In the term time bubble, as a university community, we can often become detached from events in the middle east. We saw a shocking example in the solidarity in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, but our collective oversight in ignoring the greater death toll in Lebanon. “Je suis Charlie” and changing our profile pictures tricolore seemed an effective protest, but only served to highlight the ills and bias of our sympathy. (Albeit in an Eiffel tower coated way.) These were evils shared across society, of which the whole of the western world was guilty.

The fact is that for a student community, here in Durham, the Spanish bus crash hits home on a horrible level. Whether close friends, classmates or acquaintances, it is almost impossible not to engage on a personal level with the Erasmus network at some stage during your time at university. The wealth of nations listed at the start of this article attests to the power of the project in bringing together thousands of people from various backgrounds and nationalities each and every year. Without the system, many of our university experiences would be greatly diminished. After all, there is a world beyond the Bailey. (Though try telling that to the “Boys” on a big Saturday night.)

However, the number of nationalities and global nature of the catastrophe in Spain should provide us with a twofold lesson. In celebrating the Erasmus experience, in which an Italian can land in Neville’s Cross, a citizen of Langley Moor (seriously, go there, it has a Lidl) can be transported from Costa Coffee to the Costa Del Sol, we need to realize what it is exactly that we are celebrating. It is ideas of internationalism, of exchange, harmony and bringing our individual experiences under one branded experience: Erasmus.

Thus, the idea that we can laud our internationalism, yet ignore the events in Turkey, is absurd. One lesson each and every single one of us must realise is that there is no relative ‘value’ or ‘worth’ in the circumstances of a death. Just because a 29 year-old dies in a bus crash and is a student, should not make the death more relevant to our community.

The fact that I have been driven to write this article in the wake of a bus crash, rather than a terrorist attack perhaps highlights the problem of selective sympathy in no uncertain terms. The same price of a life is shared by all of us. Humans.

Photograph: Charles Clegg, Flickr

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