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Nassar & Al Sudairi: Forgotten Lives and Unmournable Deaths

Nassar & Al Sudairi: Forgotten Lives and Unmournable Deaths

The authors identify an “empathy gap” in global reactions to similar tragedies taking place in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad

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By Fadi Nicholas Nassar  & Mohammed Al Sudairi , PhD candidates at King's College London and Hong Kong University (*)

A Facebook picture with a flag of a victim’s country, a hashtag bequeathing a prayer, and an outpouring of statements of support by foreign leaders are not meaningless gestures. They matter, especially in times of great vulnerability, fear, and mourning.


They are signals that remind those in the wake of a great tragedy that their voices are heard, their lives recognized; in the face of their challenges they do not stand alone. It is, we would like to assume, an expected human response to the wickedness of terror and the anguish of violence.

And what happens when that expected human response does not come? When instead of words of compassion and kindness to those who lost loved ones, there are cheers and jubilations “ for more to die.”

There are no candlelit vigils, no global movements of solidarity, or even the most simple signs of compassion. Silence, too, is a sign. In moments where acknowledgment and empathy are necessary in healing, their absence and elision signals indifference. An indifference that was deeply felt by the victims of the terrorist attacks that took place in Baghdad and Beirut.

An indifference that was made even more pronounced by the opposite reaction that took place a day later as Paris experienced a similar strike. Only moments after blood was spilled, those healing signals of solidarity came, but not for them. In this moment of vulnerability Paris was not alone. Those buried in Baghdad and Beirut, however, remained forgotten lives and unmournable deaths.

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Like a broken record, a tragedy strikes a city like Paris and the world rushes in, while citizens of a country on the peripheries of power remind the international community — and sadly find themselves trying to convince it — that they too matter.

They have attempted to decry what the Atlantic’s David Graham has pointed out to be a consistent “ empathy gap” in global reactions — but particularly from those in the West — to similar tragedies taking place in their homes. Those homes are not some faraway wastelands inhabited by violent barbarian tribes who ‘if pricked do not bleed.’

Sadly, while the killings in Paris were depicted- rightly so — as acts of terror, the victims of the Beirut bombings were framed in many outlets as the inhabitants of a “ Hezbullah stronghold” and the losses in Baghdad as just another outbreak of violence in a country where such news is unfortunate but expected.

Despite all being victims of the same perpetrator, ISIS, there were no statements that Baghdad represented all humanity and no monuments were lit up for Beirut. There was, in fact, little acknowledgement of these tragedies and those caught in it before Paris.

Attempts to broaden the conversation (as symbolized, for example, by the hashtag “Pray for the World”) and highlight the commonality of these tragedies were met with little success and even resistance from some quarters.

These attempts, furthermore, were inherently problematic insofar as they continued to position the tragedies of Beirut and Baghdad in the shadow of the events that took place in Paris. Indeed, no matter how broad and encompassing this “solidarity” becomes, it cannot escape the centrality of Paris to its narrative. It is ironic, after all that the Al-Shabbab massacres in Kenya for example only garnered significant global attention and circulation seven months after they took place.

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Remembrance thus becomes an afterthought; tragedies are merely international props to paint an international face to a solidarity that has, in truth, largely focused itself on Paris alone. And herein lies the problem with these attempts:  no matter how well-intentioned, they serve to drown out the critiques that are being voiced by those who see an undercurrent of racism and dehumanization in global reactions to similar events that have occurred within such a short time-frame.

The truth of the matter is these are frustrations that have been voiced before and yet the conversations that ensue appear to be stuck in a limbo. What tends to be missed – or sidelined – in such discussions are the power dynamics that define who deserves to be mourned and who is to be forgotten (in life and in death).

Tragedies on the periphery of power are often made invisible, while Western lives – citizens of the more “civilized” lands – are commemorated and remembered globally. The reasoning behind such selective solidarity is often presented in terms of a greater familiarity with Paris, a beacon of “high culture” unaccustomed to the violence that is a daily occurrence in places like Beirut and Baghdad.

As some might say, “this is not Iraq or Afghanistan”. The clinging on to colonial images of some cities as luminous capitals of humanity and others as shrouded in darkness speaks to how those who live in them are (mis)perceived.

In reality, the differences in reaction reflect an inherent hierarchy of power wherein wealthier nations and their citizens, at the core of global politics and economic power, enjoy disproportionate spaces for mourning and representation than other, less fortunate bodies from the poorer nations of the world.

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The latter make up a periphery (or multiple peripheries) which, by virtue of their socio-economic limitations cannot, in any substantive sense, exercise significant control over political and cultural capital, or for that matter, be able to even register a presence in the various modes of media that constitute our “global commons”.

These asymmetries were created – and reinforced – by very real colonial and imperial legacies that continue to exercise considerable influence over the representation of these regions and peoples. Thus, lack of access, compounded by orientalist perceptions from this core, ensures that the voices from these peripheries remain minimized and sidelined in the global conversations taking place.

There are, naturally, gradations of mourning and representation inherent to the hierarchy of power. Not all “civilized” cores are the same. The death of citizens from industrialized and powerful polities like Russia are not be ranked as highly as those of the core West.

The downing of the Russian airline jet is a case in point – the deaths of over 224 people garnered very little “ global solidarity”.  This hierarchy moreover contains multiple, smaller hierarchies that reproduce the core-periphery asymmetries noted above, albeit in different contexts and with different constituencies in mind.

The solidarities expressed in the aftermath of the Mumbai 2008 attacks versus the absence of a global conversation over civilian deaths in Kashmir come to mind. Again, what is to be emphasized here is that the modes of representation do not necessarily abide by a Western versus non-Western dichotomy.

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Nevertheless, because of its colonial history and status on the global stage, the West stands at the apex of this power pyramid. In a world where, as Frantz Fanon reminds us, race  and power are not so easily separated, critiques of power must always be expanded to incorporate race. The problematic links between power, race, and perceptions of human value, now, become ever too clear, as does the need to break them.

This is certainly a time to mourn the losses of innocent and precious lives. It is a time to condemn terrorism and the indignant targeting of civilians. But, when we mourn some deaths and elide those of others, we are engaging in a violent process of dehumanization.

It is a suffocating environment that suggests some deaths are more mournable than others; some lives more valuable and more human than others. These frustrations pulsing from parts of the world too often forgotten, cannot continue to be ignored or dismissed.

These are not the frustrations of the privileged lamenting the attention given to the marginalized, these are the voices of the Wretched of the Earth interrupting the silence that invisibilizes their lives and deaths. As soon as we acknowledge that the asymmetry in sympathy is not a recent phenomenon, we recognize that something in our reaction to these frustrations is flawed.

Rather than engage in cognitive dissonance, those privileged in life and in death, must do more than pay lip-service to equality and work to dismantle a system that prioritizes their lives over the historically underrepresented.

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With the incoming news of two bombings in Nigeria, the lives of the fallen cannot be forgotten and left unmourned. Yola and Kano must know, that like Paris, they do not stand alone.

(*) Nassar is a PhD candidate at King's College London, Department of War Studies. Al Sudairi is a PhD candidate at Hong Kong University, Department of Politics and Public Administration. You can read the Spanish version here.

Disclaimer: This Op-Ed was selected to be published in our opinion section as a contribution to public debate. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of its author(s) and/or the organization(s) they represent and do not reflect the views or the editorial line of Univision Noticias.

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