The silence in the face of the massacre of hundreds of people in Nigeria is just as powerful as the global cacophony in the face of the senseless killing of 17 people in Paris. The contrast is even more telling given how similar the two tragedies are.
Minority factions and Islamic fundamentalists carried out both attacks. Both inaugurated 2015: Al Qaeda attacked Charlie Hebdo five days after Boko Haram leveled the city of Baga in Northeastern Nigeria, killing children and old folks “like insects” as recounted by a survivor.
The world said in unison “I am Charlie,” but no one seems to be Baga. A rain of pencils falls from Paris to Bogotá to defend the inarguable value of freedom of expression, while in Nigeria it rains Boko Haram’s grenades.
Beyond a simple call for solidarity with Nigeria, I am interested in exploring the origins of such an unequal distribution of visibility and empathy. Ethan Zuckerman, researcher at the MIT Media Lab, hits the nail on the head in a recent book, Rewire. What countries appear most in the media? Not the most populous, nor the ones that suffer the worst emergencies, but rather the richest. The higher the GDP, the greater the media attention. Now we begin to understand why France and not Nigeria.
The other factors that Zuckerman highlights deepen this inequality. We pay attention to news that we understand better; as victors write history, we know Napoleon and Paris, but not Nigeria and its 174 million citizens. What is newsworthy is also surprising: the violent murder of a dozen journalists in the pleasant French capital versus a thousand more people dead in the ongoing list of atrocities in Africa. We prefer stories with recognizable faces: a single death is a tragedy while a thousand is a statistic. We favor precise narratives that clearly define who are the bad guys (the Muslim extremist) and who are the good guys (Western citizens and governments).
Delving a little deeper, this imbalance has additional motives, which are more difficult to accept. One is the victim’s skin color. The philosopher Judith Butler, in reference to the unpunished killings of young Black men in the U.S. at the hands of the police, reminded “since slavery, Black lives have only been worth a fraction of White lives.” That’s why protestor’s signs in that country proclaim “Black Lives Matter.”
Moreover, visibilizing the African deaths would unravel the good versus bad narrative of the “war against terrorism.” I could point out recent French military interventions in the region and the victims of its colonial past. I could also show that more than 90% of the victims of Islamic extremism are other Muslims, and that they likewise suffer from other fundamentalisms (like Hindu in India, or Buddhist in Burma).
None of this diminishes even an iota of the importance of rejecting violence and the attacks against freedom of expression, wherever they may occur. That is precisely why we must break this intolerable silence.
*Founding member of Dejusticia and El Espectador columnist. @CesaRodriGaravi
This article was published in Spanish in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador.