Protests, violence and the new speed of news


February 17, 2011

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A few hours ago, I saw troubling signs come up on my Facebook page. One friend I made last month when I was visiting Iraq posted photos from a day of protests and violence in Sulaymaniyah, the city where I stayed. Another new friend posted a simple message — a stylized sad face — that hinted something bad had happened in his hometown:

:.....(((( sulimani"

I looked all over news sites to see if there was word about what had happened in Sulaymaniyah — nothing. And so I asked my friends what they knew about the situation. One of them wrote back quickly:

Differing reports [about how many were killed]. Hospital says 2. My contacts say 5. Over 30 wounded."

Soon afterward, The Washington Post put up a story. But, by that point, news had already traveled all the way from northern Iraq to my home office in Atlanta, Georgia. And things like this — in addition to good, urgent communication and the courageous imperative of the people reporting — are why the protests across the Middle East seem so close and so immediate to so many of us.

We’ve all heard so much about how the world is increasingly interconnected. It’s almost a cliché. But here’s the thing: I don’t personally know the television anchor or newspaper reporter who tells me something bad has happened. I do know the Facebook friend or person I follow on Twitter. And that makes me want to do something, even if it’s something as simple as passing on their messages to those I know.

Just a couple weeks ago, I was walking on the streets of Sulaymaniyah with one of those friends. We bought roasted sunflower seeds from a food cart and took in the evening sights and sounds of a city that seemed almost too peaceful to be situated in Iraq.

And today — from halfway across the world — that peace seems broken. I wonder if I walked on the street that was recently filled with protesters. I wonder if anyone I met during my visit was in the crowd when shots rang out, killing at least two and injuring more than 40.

I have been closely following the events unfolding in places like Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen. But the news that’s coming out of northern Iraq today feels so much more personal and close.