Why the obsession over Charlie Hebdo?

Disproportional coverage of European terrorism discounts other countries’ experiences

Rachel Hertzberg, Staff Writer

On January 7, twelve people were killed at the Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters. This attack made headlines globally. World leaders marched in Paris to show solidarity. ‘JeSuisCharlie’ became one of the most popular hashtags in Twitter history, with a total of more than 5 million tweets. Americans were outraged and scared by what most saw as a display of intolerance and religious extremism. It seemed the whole world mourned the victims of the massacre. Why, though, has this particular event received so much response, when violence of equal or greater proportion, with similar radical anti-Western motives, receives silence from most of the world?

     Five days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Nigerian-based terrorist organization Boko Haram finished a weeklong raid, ravaging several villages, most severly in Baga, Nigeria, murdering an estimated 2,000 civilians. At around the same time, a young girl was sent into the city of Maiduguri as a suicide bomber. She and sixteen others were killed when the explosives strapped to her body detonated. Neither social media nor traditional media gave these outrages anywhere near the attention Charlie Hebdo received. Why is this?

     The New York Times, typically seen as a paragon of journalistic excellence, devoted days after days of front pages to the events in Paris, and barely covered the actions of Boko Haram. The Times ran an editorial on January 25 explaining the difficulties of reporting in Nigeria due to the rural and technologically limited terrain. However, their Public Editor ultimately admitted, “I have no objection to the extent of the Paris coverage. But…these lost Nigerian lives surely were worthy of The Times’s immediate, as well as its continuing, attention.”

     One reason for this inequality is that the victims of Boko Haram, as well as the Syrian and Saudi regencies, are not perceived as famous, or even important. They are just nameless, unknown citizens in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fourty-nine civilians killed by the Syrian regime in the town or Retian are not perceived as heroic martyrs as writers for Charlie Hebdo are seen as dying for the ideal of free speech. This is an erroneous perspective.

     The struggle for religious and political freedom is not reserved for high-profile satirists or politicians. It is fought everyday by ordinary people trying to live freely in the face of repression. The writers at Charlie Hebdo were no more heroic than the 5,000 people killed by Boko Haram in the name of imposing and maintaining Islamic control. Let’s mourn this violence, but not lionize the victims.

     Another reason that the Western world has prioritized the Charlie Hebdo attacks is that we perceive these victims as more similar to ourselves: culturally, religiously, and historically. The Huffington Post quoted Representative Karen Bass of California as saying, “We [Americans] identify more with Europe…We have a much lower expectation on parts of the world that are not as economically developed.” This statement reveals a common (but unspoken) sentiment. We Americans and Westerners are desensitized to killing and chaos in Africa and the Middle East, and many have even come to see it as normal. We’ve become accustomed to sensationalized images of faceless and dehumanized brown bodies piled up in far-off countries. Meanwhile, we are disturbed and saddened by violence in places like France, which hit much closer to home and makes us feel personally targeted. It may be human nature to feel more sympathy for people we feel are more like ourselves, but it is still a bias that we should strive to diminish. Our disproportionate interest in Europeans above all other global citizens represents a disturbing in-group favoritism, which uncoincidentally reflects the predominant racial and cultural chauvinism that posits Western values and cultures as superior to all others.

     The use of the hashtag ‘#JeSuisCharlie’ highlighted this phenomenon of feeling greater empathy with those who are culturally similar to ourselves. Not only did we pay more attention to the shootings in France, but we went so far as to equate ourselves with the victims. The discourse surrounding human rights has become so distorted that we think we need to identify with people in order to support their right to live in peace. In the wake of all the discussion about civil discourse here at Blake, it’s ironic that much of the material in Charlie Hebdo personifies so perfectly the absence of respect. While nothing excuses terrorism or violence, I wish that those of us who consider ourselves tolerant Americans would be less quick to identify with the victims. Even if I am not Charlie, I can still be horrified by such a senseless loss of human life. Even if the victims of brutality are not like us, if they are from another part of the world, if they are another race, if they lead lives we can hardly comprehend, we can still mourn their deaths and call on our world leaders to take action against the perpetrators.

     There is no reason to prioritize the attack on Charlie Hebdo headquarters over all other issues of free speech and democracy. It’s possible to acknowledge this atrocity and the fear, empathy, and anger that we might feel about it, while not pretending that this attack is somehow isolated or more important than all others.