Recent events in the world have prompted a lot of questions. Many of those I’ve asked myself have been asked by others and many words have spilled in trying to answer them. One question doesn’t seem to have been asked, though. This is what troubles me:
Do we really care about who dies, or are we only concerned with how and how many?
When news started to come from Paris last Friday night, the reports were of multiple gunmen killing around 30 people. Next came word of a hostage situation at the Bataclan. It was worrying, it was important; that much I knew. But it wasn’t something I could do anything about. I could pray, I could wail, but I couldn’t lift a finger to prevent the deaths from happening. So I went to bed.
It was only as I awoke the next morning that the full scale of the horror emerged.
Then came the comments and the comebacks. Why focus on Paris when Beirut had been bombed not long before, while that was largely ignored? What about the deaths in Brazil from the burst dam? It got me thinking.
To the best of my understanding, the number of people who die every day is somewhere around the 100,000 mark. For the overwhelming majority, we never hear how they died, nor is it reported as a daily tragedy that the equivalent of the population of a large market town died of old age whilst we were asleep.
Yet when a plane is blown up over the Egyptian desert or people get shot in the street, we sit up and pay attention. Partly, it’s because that’s the intent. Terrorism is meant to be noticed. But what’s disturbed me is thinking through the question of why. The media inevitably plays its part. We notice what newspaper and television editors want us to notice. In the age of social media, there is an additional pipeline into our heads, though there remains a deep suspicion about anything reported on social media not confirmed by a mainstream news outlet (conversely, there can also be suspicions of censorship if something seems to have enough traction on social media to be credible, yet it is seemingly ignored by the mainstream media).
But to simply say, “it’s all because of the media” is rather simplistic. Like it or not, we live in a consumerist society, and the media are providers of information that we want to consume; and they tailor their output in accordance with what they think we want. There’s something of a feedback loop going on, though I’m not here interested in who started it and how. I merely note that it exists.
When watching the news break on Friday night, the key piece of information that the broadcasters wanted to keep updating was the number of people killed. There seems to be something instinctive that says “[the number of people killed should be proportional to the amount of outrage I feel]”. It feels like a natural response. Yet when I think about it, in particular its converse, it makes less and less sense. If a report says that 50 people were killed in an act of violence, should our outrage be ameliorated if we later find out it was “only” 30?
Of course, it’s possible that I am guilty of projecting here, in which case this is something of a confessional as to the sickness of my mind and my morals. It certainly won’t be true of everyone, so please don’t be too offended if this doesn’t apply to you. I have a suspicion that this view may not be alien to everyone.
If there is any discriminating factor between those many deaths we don’t care about and those few that we do it is justice. If someone aged 25 is gunned down in a cafe on a Friday night, they are the victim of a violent and horrific crime. If someone aged 90 stops breathing in a hospital bed after years of heart disease, then the impact of their death on the world causes far less of a ripple; although it is, of course, felt by their family and friends.
Violence, such as that instigated by Daish (or call them what you will) is obvious to many as injustice on a large scale. But what about more small scale injustices? Are we angry about the children who die from diseases contracted as a result of drinking dirty water? Many are, but I suspect probably fewer than are outraged by Daish. Is that even an injustice, or just a fact of life?
Thinking through these questions of ethics, in particular those where there is an idea of boundaries, lines in the sand, is a troubling exercise. In the meantime, all I can try to be is a person of peace, living in a violent world that I don’t understand. When acts of hatred and violence are perpetrated against us, I try to hold on to these two pieces that I’ve written which, when holding up Daish/IS/ISIL in the place of the antagonist, it makes me all the more appreciate the depth of the cross: