On April 15th, a fire spread to the roof of the Notre Dame, causing its roof and iconic spire to partially burn down. And if you didn’t hear about it on the news, you probably saw endless Facebook and Instagram posts about the cathedral.
What I find most fascinating about this incident is that within days a handful of the richest people in the world have managed to collectively donate $680 million to the speedy recovery of one of the world’s most well-known buildings. As much as this appears generous and innocent, it sparks questions not only about the great tax benefits donors may enjoy, but also economic inequality in France.
Let’s face it—$680 million is a lot of money. The French population itself could truly benefit from that kind of money, as the poverty rate is currently at 60%. On a larger level, though, Inequality reported that “the world’s richest 1%, those with more than $1 million, own 45% of the world’s wealth.” Think about it—with that money, we could drastically lessen world hunger, poverty, and global warming. Quite frankly, though, it’s just surprising that this kind of money is needed when the Catholic Church’s net worth has been estimated to be more than $30 billion. Does the Notre Dame even need to raise money?
What really caught my attention was not that news outlets have featured slideshows and 360° videos of the fire’s aftermath, but people's reactions. Every time I opened my phone, I saw posts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accessorized with a “thoughts and prayers” slogan. Many people who’d at some point in their lives visited Paris felt obligated to make a statement about how meaningful the Notre Dame was to them. And while I myself have witnessed its beauty, I’m fully aware that the church is still standing and nobody was hurt. It should go without saying that anytime a cultural sight is damaged or destroyed it is a tragedy—but it was so interesting to see the humanization of the Notre Dame. People stood outside and sang gospels with candles in their hands, mourning the landmark. But simultaneously, the destruction of Syria, Iraq, and Palestine have gone almost unnoticed—and these are places that have lost part of their historical heritage by the hands of terrorists and war, not an electrical short-circuit. An article by Ibraham Al Marashi stunningly reminds us of the historical structures in the Middle East which have been obliterated in recent years and yet been scarcely mentioned by Western media outlets:
“Samarra’s al-Askari shrine in 2006, Mosul’s shrine housing Prophet Jonas and the Al Nuri Mosque, destroyed in 2014 and 2017 respectively, and Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque, whose signature minaret was demolished in 2013, to the numerous Yezidi shrines that were obliterated after 2014.”
What I fail to understand is why the destruction of non-Western cultural sights isn’t covered in the same way. Even when it is being reported about, news reports chose to leave out the humanity, neglecting the personal effects of this destruction on local communities. There’s an article by CNN that covers how Syria has changed throughout the war, and it features pictures of damaged infrastructure, grey tower blocks, and ruins—but no people. This kind of coverage strips Middle Eastern countries of their humanity completely, making it even easier to disconnect their current events from their real-life impact.
This article isn’t to make you feel bad for expressing your sorrow when hearing the news of an iconic Parisian sight being damaged, but I am asking you to shift your priorities and awareness—to do more than offer thoughts and prayers, and to expand your empathy beyond the Western world. The tragedy of a European historical site being damaged should be a great reminder of how important these historical artifacts are and how lucky we are to be able to preserve and rebuild them in a timely manner. It should also remind us that other countries are not so fortunate.
Annie Walton Doyle