I had the privilege of finding myself in Seattle this last weekend, visiting a friend who works as an Aerospace Engineer for Boeing. He sits in an office all day, working on wiring diagrams for one specific system on the new 787 Dreamliners. He is a U.S. citizen: white, upper-middle class, as am I.
On the 4th of July, we found ourselves in an Uber, heading to Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Our driver, Fritz, spoke with a heavy accent— my best guess puts it at Ghanaian, but my best guess is only so informed.
He was listening to BBC World on the radio, and we got to talking about the media. The day before there had been a massive terror attack in Baghdad, Iraq. Over 200 people had been killed. Some of you probably heard about that one. One of my friends even changed her profile picture. But how many of you changed your profile picture for Bangladesh? How many of you are wondering, right now, “where the hell IS Bangladesh?” (It’s by India).
Twenty people were killed in an attack on a restaurant in the capital, Dhaka, right before the Baghdad attack. That’s more victims than there were at San Bernardino. Both attacks, in Iraq and Bangladesh, occurred during Ramadan, Islam’s holy month. Most victims were Muslims.
That’s like Christian extremists launching an attack on Rome, during Christmas.
No one cares.
Let’s keep pondering that, while I take you back home, to the good ol’ U.S. of A. In the past week, we have seen TWO (2) major incidents of police shooting apparently defenseless black men.
Alton Sterling, shot to death while pinioned to the ground by two white police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Philando Castile, a black man in Minnesota, shot by officers while reaching for his ID during a traffic stop. He had informed the officers he had a concealed carry permit, and there was a gun in the vehicle. Shot four times while reaching for the ID, a movement he had told the officers he was going to perform. Showing remarkable forethought and composure, his girlfriend streamed the aftermath of the incident on Facebook Live. All of this occurred, we should note, in front of a four-year-old.
There is some outrage about these deaths, especially if you run in the right circles.
But more than outrage, more than anger, there is resignment. How many times have we seen this same story in the past few years? How many more hashtags will we need to launch?
There have been so many names, so many black men and women senselessly killed by a system that pretends to protect them, that it starts to seem a little bleak; a little hopeless.
It has become so widespread, so common, so expected, that when her boyfriend was shot, Lavish Reynolds’ first instinct was to get on Facebook Live, to be sure that people could see the true, unfiltered reality of her experience.
So that the media couldn’t get to her story, and twist it to suit their agenda.
She had learned, from the dozens that came before, to shut down her human instinct to grieve, to cry, to hold her loved one or to rage at his attackers — because she knew, in that moment, she was acting for a whole lot more people than just herself.
Think, for a moment, about that cynicism. About that courage. And about the culture that allows this to be a thing which “simply happens.”
Now, back to the terrorism.
Wait, no, I suppose we never left the terrorism. That’s kind of the theme here, see?
Back to the Islamists.
We all know #JeSuisParis. We know #WeArePulse and #JeSuisBruxelles.
All small attacks, in the grand scheme of things.
You know how much terror Turkey has endured in the past few years, trying to be the bridge between the Arab world and the European one?
Did you know Yemen is locked in a brutal proxy war, as forces subsidized by Saudi Arabia and Iran duke it out for control of the small gulf country?
Can you truly imagine the anxiety and terror induced by U.S. drone programs in Pakistan and Somalia? These are places where drones are omnipresent overhead; places where a missile could come down from the sky at any moment and annihilate your entire family, simply because their movements fit a pattern. No judge, no jury, just a foreign executioner.
Some joystick jockey, 19 years old and a world away, just eradicated your entire life. Then, he shot another missile and killed the medical responders. After that, he probably got a coffee, and checked his Facebook.
No, you don’t think about those things.
There are parts of the world where those things “simply happen.”
We all know this. It is part of our systems of classification; the very structure which enables us to compartmentalize and understand our world, our environment, and our place in it.
We cannot grieve for every tragedy across the globe. We would not survive as a species. We compartmentalize. Those that are similar to us evoke stronger emotional reactions. The gay folks on my Facebook exploded after the Orlando shooting, while the people of color are the ones spreading the good word about #AltonBrown and #PhilandoCastile.
As a white person largely insulated from this violence, my reaction is mostly abstract: how can this happen? How can we, as a society, accept this?
If you have Iraqi friends, they’re probably distraught about the Baghdad attacks. But you probably don’t have Iraqi friends, because the U.S. has been ravaging Iraq and its people for the past decade-plus.
Iraq, to us, is now simply one of those places where atrocious acts of violence “simply happens.”
How many among us spare a thought for the fact that Iraq is how it is because of us? It’s not a pleasant thought. If you accept that causation, it is not an extreme reach to say we were directly responsible for the slaughter in the streets of Baghdad last week. Almost as fully as if we pulled the trigger ourselves.
A while back, a Jewish friend posted an article on Facebook, alleging that terror attacks on Israel had been whitewashed from the recent history of Islamist atrocities.
#JeSuisParis, and #JeSuisBruxelles, she argued, but what about #JeSuisTelAviv?
This one is another piece of brain candy, right?
The history of the Israelis and the Palestinians is incredibly fraught; there is no one alive today who could objectively untangle that endless knot. The enmity is too deep, and both sides possess too much of a claim. I won’t even attempt to render a judgment here. But let’s think:
If we owe the Israelis #JeSuisTelAviv, do we owe the Palestinians #JeSuisPalestine?
Not to sound callous, but how do we manage to find the energy to care about these things? Who is deserving of our empathy, and who isn’t? How can we differentiate? The answer is: often, we can’t.
Both are terrorist groups with scope and ambitions equal to ISIS. But they operate in Africa, and Africa is, again, largely considered a continent where these things “simply happen.”
My Jewish friend puts it thus: “Regardless as a person of Jewish heritage I believe that the bias comes when people view these events largely as political rather than human.” She is probably right. But:
What choice do we have, but to view these events as political, rather than human?
If I view every incident of violence across the globe in human terms, I will be reduced to a quivering mass of anxiety, dread, and insurmountable grief over man’s inhumanity to man. So will you, if you really take a moment to think about it.
Here, I need a moment to speak on the news media.
When I worked for Inside.com, at one point we sourced most of our stories through user submissions. Early on in this phase, we were receiving lots of submissions from Africa and India. To me, these were fascinating stories from a different part of the world. I learned loads from every one I read and wrote, seeing the subtle differences in the ways our cultures framed the world. Even seeing what is written about in India gives you some sense of a different life.
Eventually, the edict came down: U.S. news only.
Why? Because “we are a U.S. news product.” People want news they can relate to, not stories that might challenge their worldview, or their preconceptions.
So we started reporting news with a U.S. lens.
And eventually, the edict came down: less news, more entertainment.
Why? Because people don’t read the news. They read entertainment. We are a business, and we’re in the business of giving people what they want. If we don’t give people what they want, they don’t click on our stories, we can’t sell ads, and my boss can’t buy the new Tesla.
Cynical? Yes. Reality? Absolutely.
So let’s tie it all together here.
Why does the news media compartmentalize and minimize these challenging stories about other people, places, and races?
Ultimately, they do it for money.
Controversy is profitable. Real, actionable change is disruptive. Honest analysis, writing and reporting which makes people uncomfortable, makes people question if their way of thinking is the correct one? That doesn’t sell.
Uncomfortable, doesn’t sell.
Which is why we’re sold this idea of “things happen.” Israel was attacked? Well, that’s a place where “these things just happen.” Africa? Who even knows what goes on in Africa? Baghdad? Baghadad’s been violent for the last decade. You don’t need to care about that.
Black men in the U.S.? Sure, it’s sad, but what is there to do about it? Surely you would rather see Kanye’s new video? I hear Taylor Swift is naked in it! It’ll make you think, but not about anything so thorny as the historical base of institutional racism in this country.
I realize I am coming dangerously close to sounding like an “Other 98 percent” post, but look: this stuff is not a conspiracy theory. It is right there, for all to see. You just need to think a little bit.
When Pulse was shot up, I could think of nothing to say.
Not because I wasn’t saddened, or I didn’t respect the lives of queer people of color — but because the first thought I had was: “and nothing will be done.” To me, America has become a place where mass shootings are simply a thing “that happens.”
I can’t bring myself to bear emotionally on a mass shooting. It’s just too rough, for something I know will be repeated again and again, year after year. I have known the victim of a mass shooting; it dominated her life, and her personality. I have never known one of the dead, but living in Colorado, where such things seem more common than usual, I easily could have. I have no hope that mass shootings will ever stop happening in the U.S. I can grieve, but if I am to keep going, I have to view the event as political, rather than human.
Humans won’t ever stop shooting humans, but maybe, with proper gun control, humans would have less opportunity to shoot other humans.