Beirut, Baghdad, Paris — Are some tragedies more tragic than others?

Published November 16, 2015
Three-year-old Haidar Mustafa, who was wounded in the Beirut bombing, sleeps in a hospital in Burj al-Barajneh, southern Beirut. Haidar's parents were both killed in the blast. —AP Photo
Three-year-old Haidar Mustafa, who was wounded in the Beirut bombing, sleeps in a hospital in Burj al-Barajneh, southern Beirut. Haidar's parents were both killed in the blast. —AP Photo

Loss is but a statistic, until it leaps across the fence to the West.

I have no intention of concern-trolling scores of people across the world, who stand in solidarity today with France, offering the wounded nation the warm support it deserves.

This soliloquy, of sorts, is aimed at no one in particular. What I’m addressing, is a system built on an unspoken agreement that some lives have more value than others.

Also read: Drones — One white death can change everything

A series of unconscionable attacks against innocent Parisians on 13th November, instilled among us a profound sense of dread. We watched the death toll rise above a hundred, with the social media imploring us all to pray for Paris.

We didn’t need to be asked. Our hands were already clasped.

In the beginning, few of us had any patience to deal with reflexive ‘Whataboutism’ from insensitive Pakistani social media users.

What about Palestine?’ they demanded. ‘What about Iraq?

But the media hype soon blossomed to a size that no denizen of the third-world may expect for his or her own people.

No ‘Safety checks’ for Beirut

Facebook decided to implement its ‘Safety Check’ feature for Paris; something that’s never been done before for an event, other than a natural disaster.

All over social media, display pictures started getting overlaid by colours of the French flag.

This idea, ostensibly, never occurred to us earlier when twin suicide attacks shook Beirut, killing 41 people and wounding more than a hundred.

Social media users wondered why the news did not inspire Facebook to launch a ‘Safety check’ option for the grieving citizens of Beirut? Or allow its users the easy option to add the colours of the Lebanese flag to their display pictures?

In the last 48 hours, just about every recognisable political figure, artist and entertainer has released a statement condemning the attacks on Paris.

Famous monuments from the Empire State Building to the London Bridge, glowed all night in French colours. With candle light vigils taking place in major cities around the globe, #PrayforParis was mentioned about 6.6 million times on Twitter, relative to only 273,000 mentions for #Beirut and #PrayforBeirut combined.

It is only recently that a more inclusive #PrayforWorld has started gaining momentum.

A grief that is closer to home

The situation appeared worse on mainstream media outlets, with all tragedies besides Paris ticker-taping across the bottom of the television screen as token one-liners, if at all.

There were no detailed interviews of survivors in Beirut, or news on how those wounded in the Baghdad attack were faring.

An uproar naturally followed concerning the world’s ‘selective outrage’. Mark Zuckerberg was forced to explain, rather poorly, why Facebook treated Paris and Beirut differently.

Social media users with tri-colour display pictures feel affronted by the politicisation of their humble gesture of support for the Parisians, and the insinuation that it indicates their apathy for ‘third-world’ victims of violence.

Many accused the ‘What about Beirut’-ers for faking concern for such tragedies only to belittle the crisis in France, and score points against ‘the West’.

After all, most of us never talked about Beirut until the Parisians were attacked.

The reason could be an irrational anti-West bias, but also the fact that many of us never heard of the tragedy in Lebanon.

The mainstream media mumbled its reports on Beirut and Baghdad as a usual journalistic requirement, with all the zeal of a kid returning to school after his summer vacation.

In contrast, anyone not stuck on a high chairlift with a dead mobile phone since Friday, has caught wind of Paris. Everyone knows about it, and has an opinion on it, because it’s being discussed all around.

The last few days have only added more evidence to the theory that a Western tragedy is a universal tragedy, while a crisis anywhere else is a regional affair.

It is worth recalling how 17 deaths in the Charlie Hebdo attack once managed to dwarf roughly 2000 deaths in Baga, Nigeria, in terms of media coverage.

Also read: I am Charlie, but I am Baga too — On Nigeria’s forgotten massacre

The coverage Paris receives is justified, and I do not wish to subtract anything from it. But it is valid to ask why we won’t do the same for Gaza, Baghdad, Rakhine, or Garissa, when theoretically, all life matters.

It isn’t wrong for us to feel disappointed, knowing that our love and support for victims of violence and natural calamities in the West, will not be reciprocated.

A Nigerian will gladly replace his profile picture on Facebook with a French flag, but if a bomb sets off in his own town, there will be no Nigerian colours on display on social media.

It is not unreasonable to feel bitter knowing that the world has accepted our pain as an inevitability; our sensation-less Wednesday merely background noise to the ‘real’ traumas of the first world.



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