Do Western Lives Matter More? Let’s Talk Terrorism.

Do Western Lives Matter More? Let’s Talk Terrorism. March 23, 2016

I’m incredibly saddened by the terrorist attacks in Brussels this week. There is way too much senseless death in our world. Political violence of this sort is difficult to grapple with, because the underlying causes are complicated enough to make it difficult to do more than damage control. We have to find ways to stop the violence at its root, which is much harder than simply tightening security. It’s also complicated because we live in a world of increased technology, and identifying and cracking down on terror cells raises difficult questions about privacy. There don’t seem to be any easy answers, and it grieves me deeply to realize that my children are going to grow up in an era when terrorism is normative.

Still, as I sat in my car listening to NPR yesterday evening, I found myself grieved by something else entirely. I have a Facebook friend who posts frequently about terrorist attacks across the world—Nigeria, Pakistan, Yemen. When an attack happens, she posts it. And yet, as I listened to wall to wall NPR coverage of Brussels, I grieved for the fact that this level of coverage only occurs when the victims are white. I grieved for the fact that the victims of last week’s Maiduguri mosque bombing received barely a mention, and I grieved for the victims of last week’s bus bombing in Peshawar. These two attacks cost more lives than the Brussels attack. Where was our grief then?

I could go on. I could talk about the attack in Ankara last week that cost more lives than the one in Brussels and received far less media coverage. I could talk about the attack in Zliten, Libya, in January that cost nearly twice the lives of the Brussels attack, but that no one even remembers. What about the attack on a peace rally in Ankara this past October that cost nearly 100 lives? Do we remember that? Last year’s terror attacks in Paris took 137 lives. The world mourned. Last year’s Yemen mosque attacks also took 137 lives. Did anyone notice? What about the attacks in Maiduguri that took over 100 lives last September? Did those make an impact on our collective consciousness? Did we mourn?

And so as I mourn for Brussels today, I also mourn for those whose lives have not been thought worth mourning. I am deeply saddened by what our selective media coverage of terrorism suggests about the relative value of white lives as compared with brown lives, and I worry that this selective coverage may create a false understanding in our public mind that terrorism is brown on white.

The vast, vast majority of those who die in terrorist attacks around the world are not white, and do not live in the West. They are Iraqi and Afghani and Somali. They are Nigerian and Libyan and Pakistani. They are Yemeni and Turkish and Indonesian. They are Syrian and Egyptian and Cameroonian. They are Saudi Arabian and Chadian and Israeli. They are Malian and Filipino. They are Thai and Tunisian and Sudanese. They are Congolese and Ivorian and Nigerian. And that’s just in 2016. In contrast, with the exception of two IRA-related attacks in Ireland, the Brussels attack was the first deadly terrorist attack in the West this year.

I just went through a list of terrorist attacks so far this year and added up some numbers. Because there are so many, I included only the attacks that killed at least 20 people. My calculations resulted in a total of roughly 1550 fatalities. Just over 30 of these fatalities occurred in Brussels this week. The other roughly 1520 fatalities occurred in countries outside of the West. And remember, this only includes attacks that cost at least 20 lives, a small fraction of the total number of attacks.

Let me give you a graph to help you visualize this:


This is not to say that we should not mourn terror fatalities in the West, or that we should not work to find ways to prevent these tragedies. We should do both of these things. But if you live in the West and you think you live your life in fear of terrorist attacks, imagine living in Iraq. Or Afghanistan. Or Pakistan. The list of terrorist attacks in Western countries pales in comparison to the sheer number of attacks that occur in any one of these three countries, much less the three of them combined.

We often conceptualize of Islamic terrorism as Islam v. the West, but it’s important to remember that the vast, vast majority of the victims of Islamic terrorist attacks are other Muslims. And you know what? They don’t like living in fear of terrorism any more than we do. They know fear, and they know loss. They’re people just like us. Take a look at this video made by a group of Pakistanis after the Paris attacks:

Those living in what we often call the Muslim world do not like terrorism any more than we do, and for many in places like Iraq or Pakistan, terror is a much more constant presence than it is here. Unfortunately, when the media focuses on terrorist attacks in the West and leaves terrorist attacks that occur elsewhere to be quickly forgotten, we can lose track of this reality. And that’s a problem.

So yes, let’s mourn. Let’s mourn all the victims of terrorism.


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