The traumatic events of the last 4 days in France have wiped almost all other news off the headlines. But gross daily suffering and death did not abate elsewhere in the world.
On the same day that 12 people were killed in Paris in or near the Charlie Hebdo offices, 35 people were killed by a massive car bomb outside a Police Station in Yemen’s capital Sanaa (http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/07/us-yemen-security-idUSKBN0KG0AD20150107), and 53 civilians were killed in 9 separate locations across Iraq (https://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/recent/)
In one of the Iraq incidents, four Iraqi doctors and three Iraqi lawyers were executed in Mosul by ISIL for collaboration with the Iraqi security forces http://www.almadapress.com/ar/news/42167/داعش-يعدم-سبعة-أطباء-ومحامين-لاتهام.
By a strange twist of fate, Wednesday was the first day in the three-year Syrian war when no-one was reported killed by violence, according to Human Rights monitors there. The reason? A fierce snow storm that made fighting impossible simply brought a different kind of suffering to the dispossessed of the conflict, trying to survive without homes or heating.
And in the remaining days of last week, when another 5 Parisian hostages were killed in at a Kosher Supermarket, an estimated 2000 civilians were killed in and around Baga, Northern Nigeria, by Boko Haram militants (http://edition.cnn.com/2015/01/09/africa/boko-haram-violence/.)
The sheer enormity of the Nigerian tragedy has briefly jostled with Paris for some recent headlines, but, for the majority of other violent incidents this week, such as those in Iraq and Yemen, the attention of the world’s media has been negligible.
Of all this week’s victims, only those connected to the high-profile Charlie Hebdo magazine have been widely named. Even the victims of the kosher supermarket siege are yet hardly visible, named only in one or two obscure places. Because Yohan Cohen , Yossef Siboni, Dominique bat Sarah, Sarah bat Louna, and Noa bat Sarah are not public figures, few seem interested in who they were (see: http://www1.alliancefr.com/actualites/hyper-cacher-vincennes-4-morts-et-4-blesses-en-urgence-absolue-6013242).
In a powerful and challenging commentary on the week’s events, Teju-Cole, a Nigerian-American historian writing in the New Yorker sheds some light on this skewed attention when he points out that “when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks” (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/unmournable-bodies.)
The killing sprees at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Kosher Supermarket were atrocities, for which no justification or defence is possible. But that judgement not absolve us of our wider responsibilities. Other people’s wrongdoing does not change the moral character of our own responses, even when we are the injured party. For instance:
1. It is a matter of significant regret that the Paris perpetrators are now dead and therefore cannot face justice in a public court according to French law. They have, in effect, received a summary death penalty in a country that has abolished the death penalty – and I regret that I saw no indication that the French authorities were strenuously seeking to terminate the hostage situations without any further loss of life, including that of the killers, or that any section of the French society was urging this. It seems to have been just somehow assumed that, of course, the hostage takers would be killed, thus denying them any of the rights or opportunities offered in France to defendents of all, including the most heinous, crimes. The justice of the courts has, sadly, been replaced in this case by the justice of the bullet.
2. There are many highly questionable killings perpetrated or supported by Western governments, such as the British and American killing in captivity of prisoners, the USA’s use of drone strikes against civilians in Pakistan and Yemen, and the killing of women and children in Gaza by the Israeli Defence Forces. The Charlie Hebdo killings cannot and should not turn attention away from these other tragedies and misdemeanours, nor be used to justify our role in them. If they were wrong or illegal before this week, they remain so now, and justice for these and other victims must continue to be sought.
3. Although they may not have been breaking any law, many of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are - in many eyes including my own - vile, infantile, prejudiced, and entirely destructive in their intent. Their main purpose seems to be to foment hatred and misunderstanding of their targets among members of French society. For others to demand that these cartoons be widely reproduced and circulated as an act of solidarity with the victims or an act of defiance against radical Islamists, is unacceptable and counterproductive, and I applaud those who refuse to comply with what amounts to societal bullying – particularly where their refusal is not out of fear of the consequences – but out of principle. We can and should respect the right of the publishers of Charlie Hebdo to publish their cartoons. They, and others, need to recognise other people’s right to have nothing to do with the cartoons, and to actively oppose their use or circulation if they so choose, by any means other than violent means. Such opposition does not mean that we view the brutal death of their staff with anything other than the utmost horror and condemnation.