Human Lives Are Still Valued According To Where They Began
January 9, 2015
by Martin Odoni
Wednesday’s massacre in France was horrific, let us make no bones about that. It was an attack on peaceful people who just happened to know how to exercise their freedom of speech, and it was, in turn, an attack on free speech itself – by foolish adherents to a ‘Qtubist’* ideology that belongs several centuries in the past.
Sometimes freedom of speech is abused by being presented as an excuse for intellectual laziness; a mistaken belief that, because you have a legal right to say whatever you wish to say, that means you are under no compulsion to make sure that what you are saying is fair or true. Few things irritate me as much as people saying, “I’m entitled to my opinion!” instead of sticking to the point under discussion, as that entitlement alone does not validate the opinion being expressed. At other times, the freedom is mistaken for a divine right to express views that must go unchallenged by cross-examination at all. It’s almost like saying, “My freedom of speech is greater than yours, therefore I can say what I like and you have no right of reply.”
But the satirists at Charlie Hebdo were guilty of neither such abuse. They have pointed out absurdities in Islam – especially the Radical fringe – and indeed in many other aspects of life far beyond religion. That is not an abuse of free speech, it is simply using it to address precisely the sorts of issues that make it such a critical legal right in the first place. It says something about how foolish and easily-bruised Militant Islamists can be that they cannot just shrug and take a ribbing from mere cartoonists in their stride. Thin skins, militants, but then I suppose that might be one of the reasons why they became militants to begin with. (Mind you, before descending into blind platitude out of respect for the dead, we need to recognise that some of Charlie Hebdo’s more extreme work does have genuinely crude offensive overtones – both racial and homophobic.)
However, I do think it is time that much of the Western world tempered its reaction a little. Most of the response across media and politics to the attack has been obsessive, and tiresomely predictable; –
Expressions of pompous outrage from Government leaders – in countries that are not slow to deploy diplomacy gunboats themselves – about how attacks such as these will not lead their country to abandon its ‘values’; usually spoken by the leader while he or she is taking a brief break from enacting legislation that erodes the country’s values,
Disgusting, artificially-made-relevant opportunism from far-right xenophobes and racists, looking to blame everything bad that ever happens on a vaguely-defined phenomenon that they label ‘multiculturalism’,
Knee-jerk moves to increase police and security powers yet again, and to erode Human Rights further than ever before, because apparently legislation is able to give officers telepathic abilities to foretell criminal behaviour, while of course never posing the slightest danger of misuse against ordinary members of the public,
Irresponsible alarmist cries of “We’re gonna be neeeeeeeext!!!!!” from experienced intelligence chiefs who really should be old enough to know better by now,
Boneheaded, double-standard cries for the Islamic community to condemn the attacks (even though ‘it’ – if we can really call Islam ‘one’ community when it numbers over one-and-a-half billion people all around the world – already has done, with considerable vehemence and eloquence).
The degree of ‘loudness’ of these responses has started to worry me. I am not suggesting that the world should just shrug its shoulders and ignore what happened in Paris of course, but I do think the coverage is so close to saturation-point that we have reached the opposite extreme – one that has very distasteful implications.
For instance, it occurs to me that it’s an unusually peaceful day in Iraq or Syria when ‘only’ twelve people are killed in a militant atrocity of one kind or another. Yet somehow, such attacks seldom provoke comment from politicians, let alone dominate the world headlines for three solid days. And now the BBC and Guardian websites (probably among others, but I’m starting to feel too nauseous in the face of all this ‘real-world-violence’ porn to bother checking) are giving us running commentaries on the attempts to capture the Paris gunmen** just to give the over-attention fresh impetus. I feel queasy when I glance at these feeds, because the reporters almost seem to be cheering the French security forces on from the touch-lines, as though they and the victims of the shootings are ‘on our side’, and the Islamist gunmen are ‘the opposition’. Don’t get me wrong, there seems little doubt that the gunmen are ‘bad guys’, but the fixated, partizan mindset in the way the story is being reported is not appropriate for the media, who should be making attempts to investigate critically, impartially, and without any pro-establishment focus.
They should also take the time to acknowledge that there are things happening in the rest of the world too. For instance, who is even aware of Boko Haram’s latest attack on innocent people in Nigeria last weekend, one that killed at least fifteen times as many people as were killed in Paris – probably far more -, and saw entire villages burned to the ground? Why haven’t three consecutive whole afternoons of BBC News 24 been given over to covering that?
The Boston Marathon Bombings, a little under two years ago, were a similar tale in some respects to what is happening now. Again, I am not trying to play down or make light of that atrocity, nor am I trying to suggest that it was barely worth a mention. But for the week after it happened, it was almost the only story on the news, not just in the USA, but even here in Britain. Why was scarcely anything else worth a mention? The almost-total lock-down of Boston by security forces over the days that followed bordered on totalitarian – much of it going unquestioned by the media – and that was in turn followed by voyeuristic, wall-to-wall coverage of the attempts to track down and apprehend the bombers. All presenting the security forces as ‘heroes’.
The death-toll in the bombings, many people missed, was three people. That’s three too many, of course, but even so, not exactly a profound massacre when put in a wider context. What context, you ask? Well…
All this hunger for televised explosions was bad enough in itself, but what really appalled me was that, on the same day as the Boston Bombings, there was a co-ordinated series of militant bomb-attacks in Iraq. There were over fifty people killed in those bombings, and yet the atrocities were largely relegated to the In other news… sections of the mainstream media. Sometimes they were not mentioned at all. Why? Because they might remind us how Iraq is in such chaos through Western interference?
In fairness to news broadcasters, it tends to be easier for them to get televised coverage of atrocities in places like the USA and France than in some other parts of the planet. But this does not justify the almost lurid excitement they seem to experience when getting a chance to show some real live James Bond-style action; they probably felt, rather tastelessly, that it makes great television, especially when they could present it as ‘good guys’ (establishment white people) v ‘bad guys’ (foreign-looking people with even more foreign-sounding names like ‘Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev’). But surely this is forgetting that the purpose of news is not to entertain, but to inform?
‘Ease-of-broadcast’ also offers no real explanation for the extreme depth of coverage provided by the printed press, when televised coverage is not really what they specialise in (even if their websites usually have streamed news-clips available these days). That same fixation on bringing ‘all the up-to-the-minute action’ was there, even though they had little motive to offer ‘great TV’. Maybe the print-journalists were as excited by the live pictures as anyone else seeing them, but I fear there is more to it than that – a subtext.
The subtext is that atrocities committed against Europeans and Americans seem to be just ‘more’ unacceptable to the Western Media. And atrocities committed by people of other religions, or different races, or remote countries, seem to be ‘more’ outrageous than those committed by Westerners.
We live in an era when explicit racism is heavily stigmatised, and when a black man can become President of the most powerful nation on Earth. We have made considerable progress in the struggle against racial injustice. But those who try to argue that “we don’t have racism anymore”, either here or in the USA (yes, I’m talking in particular about those chronic imbeciles at Fox News Channel) are only looking at the explicit and not at the implicit, and so do not notice how far we still have to go. It is seldom said, but it is still unavoidably true, that Westerners, especially white Westerners, are just ‘more of a priority’ to the powers-that-be, especially in the media, than people from elsewhere. Unconscious prejudice on the part of many in the audience makes this imbalance seem ‘natural’ and so it rarely faces objections.
Only today, a UN Report on the long, confused series of civil wars that have raged in the Central African Republic over the last few years concluded that there has been ethnic cleansing against Muslims by Christian Anti-Balaka Militias. Will that even get mentioned in the Six O’Clock News? (Come to that, will many Britons, from watching the Six O’Clock News over the last few years, even be aware of the constant wars and political turmoil that have mutilated the Republic since at least the Bozizé Coup of 2003? Will they even have heard of the Bozizé Coup?)
Probably not. And why not? Because the victims of these horrors are just too ‘different’ – for the news media, that is, not necessarily for everyone else. The media think them too ‘foreign’. Too poor to be worth paying much attention to, and too un-Western for us little people to care about in the same way we will care about, er… twelve cartoonists. (Just imagine if the Charlie Hebdo staff had been primarily English-speakers as well? We’d probably have two weeks of national mourning. As it is, I doubt all that many people in Britain had even heard of Hebdo before this week.) Far better just to keep these different-looking foreigners handy for when a bad guy is needed for an exciting terror narrative! Anything else just complicates things for the poor ignorant little viewing public.
That outlook in the media shows it has class attitudes to the rest of us that they find as difficult to shake off as their racial attitudes.
I stress again, I am absolutely not dismissing the terrorist attack in Paris. It was a shameful horror and those who committed it are every bit as barbaric as the rhetoric has suggested. But the degree of fixation on it has been disproportional, and highlights unconscious racial and hierarchical attitudes that, after all this time, still pervade across the Western world.
* By ‘Qtubist’, I mean the ideology that evolved from the philosophy of the Egyptian author, Sayyid Qutb. This ideology is the real identity of what we wrongly call ‘al-Qaeda’, which is not a terrorist network in the sense normally meant, but a religious idea that a wide variety of independent Islamic activist groups around the world subscribe to.
** It appears that, while I was writing this essay, the suspected gunmen have been shot dead after a hostage scenario that resulted in a number of other deaths. The liquidation of the gunmen will doubtless be reported in the press in tones of great triumph and relief, before any real attempt is made to establish whether they were definitely the murderers, and whether their deaths were genuinely justified. It is, again, a familiar pattern.