It is not Paris we should pray for. It is the world.

Those are the opening lines of a poem by Karuna Ezara Parikh, a poet from New Delhi, whose poem went viral after terrorism attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad.

The poem reflects a growing tradition in which people’s personal responses to tragic events is subjected to moral scrutiny. In response to online movements of solidarity such as #Prayers4Paris and #JeSuisParis emerged #PrayfortheEntireWorld and#PrayforLebanon.

These response movements censure those whose concerns about global terrorism are limited to Paris. At best they charge people with insensitivity, at worst outright racism. And not without some cause. Facebook, for instance, have not enabled a filter to show solidarity with Lebanon – nor was the Safety Check feature enabled for those in Beirut as it was for those in Paris.

It prompted New Matilda to ask (or perhaps more accurately, accuse):

How do we explain our identification with French suffering and our apparent indifference to Lebanese suffering? Or more to the point, how do we explain our indifference to the suffering of people we perceive as different, Lebanese, African, Hazara, Muslim … Brown people.

I’ve been thinking about Paris more than I have Beirut. I don’t believe that makes me racist, indifferent, or insensitive.

I have not prioritised some victims of terrorism over others. Victims of murder are always and everywhere the victims of one of humanity’s deepest horrors – their very right to life has been torn away. In this tragedy, they are all equals.

Those who ISIS murdered in Beirut are no more or less important than those in Paris. Or in Mosul, Baghdad, or anywhere else for that matter – not ethically, nor to me personally. But it doesn’t follow from this that I ought to allocate equal sorrow, grief or reflection to each incident.

It may not even be possible.

Scottish philosopher David Hume believed morality was based in sympathy – the ability to understand and share in the experiences of another person. Morally good people are, Hume argued, pleased when someone experiences something good and saddened when someone else suffers.

But all of this is grounded in our ability to know and understand how another person is feeling. We are more readily able to imagine and thereby sympathise with the familiar. We are better at knowing how our family feel than we are a total stranger.

I’ve been to Paris – I’ve walked the streets, smelled the air, and been among its people. I was there on my honeymoon. My wife and I dined in restaurants, drank in bars, and wandered the streets around Rue de Voltaire – just like those who were slaughtered last Friday.

ISIS didn’t just attack today’s Paris. They attacked the Paris of Les Misérables, A Tale of Two Cities, and Hemingway.

When my heart breaks for Paris it breaks because I know the streets that are stained with blood more intimately than I do the markets of Beirut or the mosques of Baghdad. Others whose heritage, reading or travels are different may connect more with Baghdad or Beirut. Or Japan, Mexico or any of the countless places in the world where innocent people suffer.

Of course, not everyone mourning for or expressing solidarity with Paris has visited France before. Perhaps the charge of racism still applies. Do Westerners more readily empathise with the experience of white people? Not necessarily.

Paris has always held a special place in the Western imagination. It sits alongside Rome and Athens as definitive of Europe and the West. This is precisely why ISIS chose it as a target. Terrorism speaks in symbols, and Paris is precisely that. ISIS called it the “capital of prostitution and obscenity” but Paris is more than that – it’s an icon of Western secularism, humanism and indeed, decadence.

ISIS didn’t just attack today’s Paris. They attacked the Paris of Les MiserablesA Tale of Two Cities and Hemingway. Put simply, Paris was attacked because it matters more than most other places to the West. Terrorism aims to hit our imaginations, so ISIS struck a city that captures it more than most.

The other reason Paris strikes us more deeply is because it brings the threat of terrorism closer to home. Although every Western nation has been exposed to Islamic extremism in its own way, we continue to believe attacks on our own soil to be the unlikely exception. Statistically, they are, but attacks in places such as Boston, Paris, or New York make the risks of terrorism tangible in a way similar attacks in Baghdad, Beirut, or Nigeria do not.

This is because Western nations have, since the Enlightenment, eschewed the type of ideological extremism that generates the violence that defines ISIS and other groups. We have led ourselves to believe religiously motivated violence is an artefact of history in secular societies. In other parts of the world where the norms of secularism don’t apply, we understand such violence to be possible – but not here.

Western nations have, since the Enlightenment, eschewed the type of ideological extremism that generates the violence that defines ISIS and other groups.

Thus we are not only shocked or sorrowed by attacks in Paris, we are afraid. And so we counteract our fear with movements of solidarity, resolve and a reaffirmation of our values. That’s not racism.

With all that said, it is right that people remind us of horrors elsewhere in the world. By expanding our imaginative faculties we can overcome the xenophobia and tribalism on which groups like ISIS rely.

So take a moment for Beirut, for Baghdad – mourn their dead. Think more of those places than Paris if it’s where your thoughts, prayers or heart lies. But don’t shame those who still think of Paris, and don’t feel guilty if you feel the same.