THE DEATHS OF OTHERS
Who is the neighbour we are called to be attentive to? We are overdue a difficult conversation around this. Without it, we will either get compassion fatigue or selfishly retreat into ourselves.
How do we rank a human life? The BBC’s World Affairs Editor John Simpson has criticised the British media’s ‘grotesquely selective’ reporting of death from terror across the world in an interview with Huffington Post UK. Perhaps it takes someone of Simpson’s stature to make this observation without the risk of being pilloried for insensitivity only days after the November 13, 2015 atrocities in Paris.
His interview was carefully qualified because Paris was profoundly important. The sheer number of innocent civilians murdered and injured and the fact that they were targeted like armed enemy combatants as they ate, drank and rocked a romantic night away brought Mumbai to Europe, as had been long feared. A new threat like this alters the foreign policy of nations. At a more intimate level, the closeness of ties between the British and the French and the existence of video footage of scenes of war on streets familiar to many of us meant we treated this differently to other atrocities. And yet the wider world has been ravaged by calculated acts of sadistic cruelty in our generation without much attendant comment.
In the days and weeks around the Paris massacres there have been devastating suicide bomb attacks in Ankara, Beirut, Baghdad and Yola in northern Nigeria. The threat of genocide in Burundi and South Sudan and the ever mounting loss of civilian life to guns and bombs in Pakistan and Afghanistan attract only desultory interest in Britain by contrast. Why is there no equivalent focus in the media?
A key factor, as Simpson knows better than anyone, is the disappearance of foreign correspondents and the vacation of difficult places by news bureaus due to a combination of cuts, risks and public disinterest. It costs serious money to put people on the ground in the middle of Africa or the Middle East and the threat to the lives of journalists means few media outlets are willing to take the risk. Those that do often find their stories have less traction with western publics. Distinguished British news organisations may still bring the suffering of far-away places to our living rooms but they are less likely to be watched or, most significantly today, shared with others on social media. Mood and feeling trumps analysis and dialogue in how we respond to the intractable politics of organised violence.
It is a curious function of digital globalisation that as we become more connected we appear to be less interested in issues that do not grab and hold our attention or which cannot be understood in a paragraph. This trend is likely to continue and become entrenched, yet the issues we ignore will from time to time come knocking on our doors. The civil war in Syria has come to Europe in the barefooted, shivering refugee and the semtex-laden sadist. There is a particular culpability, as Simpson observed, when we bomb or invade other countries and then grow bored with dispiriting TV coverage when it goes wrong, as in Libya and Iraq.
Perhaps we can be too hard on ourselves. It is not possible to show engaged interest in all deaths from violence and terror across the world. It is probably not desirable for news programmes to focus only on horror, as if only events that turn our stomachs are worthy of broadcast. But we are left with a question: who exactly is the neighbour we are called to be attentive to? This is especially relevant to Christian people as they seek to intercede for the needs of the world. It would be easier for us if there was less news to mourn over, to retreat into a place where endless suffering cannot permeate.
The way of the cross calls for empathy and intercession for the victims of the world, but there are human limits to the effort made. We listen to the story of the Good Samaritan and draw fresh inspiration from its ethic. The Samaritan responded to the injured man in front of him, but how do we react to the dazed and bloodied woman staggering away from a bomb blast in Lebanon on our TV? We are overdue a difficult conversation around this. Without it, we will either drive ourselves into the ground with compassion fatigue or retreat further into ourselves and away from what makes us fully human.
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