A Calculus for Grief Equity

Posted on November 15, 2015


A four-way pic showing national solidarity from other Western Nations for Paris, from

A four-way pic showing national solidarity from other Western Nations for Paris, from “Unilad”

Last year, around this time, the 2014 death toll in South Sudan’s civil war hit, by some estimates, 10,000. Though Sudan had been in the news for decades when the US evinced very little interest in colonial enterprises in Africa, the name disappeared off the world’s radar once the US and Western nations, against the better advice of many observers, converted the region into a nation state. South Sudan began falling apart almost immediately–but not before Western economic interests sunk their fangs into the region’s rich oil reserves.

The power struggle that ensued has for years taken thousands of lives, quietly in the back alleys of the world’s papers of records, with no memorials, few op-eds, and no world-wide sense of solidarity with the victims of the West’s failure at playing oil-baron and nation builder.

It would be easy to contrast the high death toll, and the massive numbers of internally, and continentally, displaced, Sudanese suffering in obscurity, with the high profile, and daily barrage of news from Syria, Eastern Europe and other places closer to the hearts of Western news audiences—with recent attacks in Paris that killed hundreds and garnered the entire world’s attention, being perhaps the most obvious choice. That, of course, is a pointless, and ultimately, dehumanizing exercise.

Clearly, biases come into the calculus of when to care about the deaths of strangers. Some of the equation is structured around ethnic associations, name recognition, and political affinities. There is almost no way to care equally about 100 deaths in a place that is dear to your heart, or 1 or 1,000 in a place that you can barely pronounce, and whose dizzying context sometimes appears impossible to understand. The atrocities of the world have been the fodder for news and gossip for generations now, since the advent of the national newspaper. And with the almost lightning speed with which we today learn of the world’s news, we have never had more bodies to count or grieve for. There is just no way to make sense of it all, no ready grief template to draw on when hearing about atrocities of the world, and, especially in the world of social media, no satisfactory way of emotionally performing to such news.

I think all of these factors make the arguments about whether more attention has been paid to the Western victims of terror and violence moot. Of course, racism, jingoism and a historical affinity to colonial conquest will make some tragedies echo louder with Western audiences–even those that are politically sophisticated–more than others. But as we can see with Syria, for example, the pattern is not always predictable. Why Syria, and not South Sudan? South Sudan and Syria are two sides of the same US policy coin–the unfortunate victim of the US’s positive attention for the former, and the unfortunate victim of decades of isolation and quiet repression in the latter. I have some ideas that I won’t go into here, nor am I interested in the kinds of guilt-soaked accusations that are often rife in social media when such comparisons are made.

What the haggling over the variables to plug into the calculus of grief really obscures is the almost uniform lack of concern with the victims of the West’s–and specifically, the US’s–terror attacks. This is not just a question of people being less concerned about Yemeni, Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani, Palestinian and African victims for reasons of racist bias. Of course, some of that is at work. It’s probably the main reason why, in the hours before the Paris attacks even occurred, the bombing of a Yemeni mosque, purportedly by groups aligned with US client Saudi Arabia, received almost no attention, despite killing nearly two dozen—far more than the initial death count that ignited the round the clock coverage of the violence in Paris. Likewise, the fact that last month, a Saudi bombing killed over a 130 people at a wedding party in Yemen, also went straight to the dustbin of history without mention in mainstream media, much less mourning.

Surely, some degree of western complacency, jingoism and racism is at work in completely ignoring the victims of such violence—no doubt, that is the reason that, though we hear much about the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict”, we rarely hear about the daily body count of Palestinians, unless they reach double digit numbers for a sustained period.

But there is also a systemic process at work in the way the government, establishment, mainstream media and punditry produce news and talk about US produced massacres when they do breach the level of public notice. When the US bombed a Medecins Sans Frontiers hospital in Afghanistan last month [and one could argue that the western origin of the hospital is the only reason we know of the bombing], for example, nearly every article in US papers of record, used passive voice descriptions in their headlines of the story:

Death toll rises to 30 in Afghan hospital bombing

Civilians ‘accidentally struck’ in Afghan hospital bombing, U.S. commander says

Death toll rises to 30 in Afghan hospital bombing

And even the supposed “left” journal, Mother Jones, decided to air on the side of caution, with this inscrutable headline:

Did the US bombing of an Afghan hospital cross the line between screw-up and war crime?


Of course, any human tragedy, once its cleared the preliminary hurdle of internal biases,  can cause a visceral reaction in the Western news consumer. That reaction, when the victims are approved Western or client state citizens, is facilitated by political figures and leaders roleplaying concern.  Media, amplify it with solemnity products packaged in badly composed “atrocity themes”, turgid prose and graphics and somber talking head pentameter to aid public grieving. But the murder of US “enemies”, even when they are civilians, and despite filling all the requisites of “innocence” imaginable, viz—patients in a hospital, medical staff and wedding guests—are contested from the get-go through a series of filters designed to remove all emotional particulates by the time the news hits the viewer’s heart.

The first filter, is contested “innocence” status of victims; guilt by association and claims of serving as human shields and the like turn the trick here. Next, media enthusiastically echo official claims of Western “intent”.  Western military, be it British, Israeli, or American, unlike their enemies, try their best to avoid civilian casualties, with the consequent corollary that they inevitably fail to do so, due to the insidious nature of the enemy—see the first filter. Focus is then shifted to the victimizer’s lament. Should we keep killing hospitals? For how long and for which objectives? All followed by the chaser—the renewed committment of the nation’s power to end the enemy once and for all as the only way to prevent killing civilians in the future. The truth often comes out, as it did in the Medicins Sans Frontiers attack, weeks or months later–that the victims were innocent, and that intent was purposeful. Often poorly reported, the news won’t obviate the filters, it is too late to have a human association with those victims.

Even if, for some bizarre reason, the same state and media apparatus that did its best to expunge human associations to their victims, then decided to drape their capitol buildings in the national colors of Afghanistan or Yemen, as was done in the case of France, its already too late. The consumer of news has shifted their view from fellow member of the human fraternity, to disillusioned detective, wondering why the world is so heartless, and wishing we were free of whatever quagmire(s) the current president boasted he would enthusiastically mire us in before he was elected.

Something must give in this calculus. The state and media being what they are, it will have to be within the public. It could be time to reject calls of solidarity when nations that have helped us invade other states, have their own complicated and bloody histories with their colonies, and prop us up most of the time when necessary [freedom fries, notwithstanding], experience violent tragedies. Perhaps we should provide the filters when the state will not, subjecting the deaths of civilians in Western nations who mired themselves in conflicts with other states a decade ago, last year or a century past, to the kind of scrutiny that is demanded of our victims when we kill them.

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