Time to unlearn and learn what respect for lives means

Few things bring out the character of a society than the way a crisis is handled. When disaster struck in France with the terror attack on the premises of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo then Boko Haram also reminded the world of their existence with another attack in Nigeria, mankind was exposed.

Few things bring out the character of a society than the way a crisis is handled. When disaster struck in France with the terror attack on the premises of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo then Boko Haram also reminded the world of their existence with another attack in Nigeria, mankind was exposed.

For France it was a massive outpouring of sympathy and unity in condemnation of the attacks. A solidarity march was organised and attended by so many people. On the social media platforms or streets as many prefer to call them these days, a new debate emerged. Many wondered why, the death of ‘only’ a few people in France bred an emotional outpouring that was not replicated or surpassed when many more (over 2000) were killed in Nigeria by Boko Haram?

The same people who had just been tweeting #JeSuisCharlie had now turned into media analysts and were blaming the western media for ignoring Nigeria where according them there was a ‘bigger’ story given the numbers of people killed.

As I followed the debate, one word caught my attention – Only. I will not go into the thinking that informs western media houses on how they cover stories but rather stick to the usage of the world only and what it says about those who use it. In a way the word was used to insinuate inadequacy or minimalism. I wondered to myself how many people were supposed to have died in Paris for the word only to be found inappropriate.

When one refers to the dead in Paris as only, based and in comparison to the numbers in the Nigeria case then he or she is looking at death quantitatively and not qualitatively. Ideally every life ought to count. Years of poverty, disease and armed conflicts seem to have engendered a sense that when few lives are lost then it is not a big deal.

This thinking ought to be unlearnt and a new one adopted where every single life counts just as much as when scores are lost. In the western world, the loss of life makes news largely because of the manner in which it occurs. If it was avoidable questions are asked, jobs are sometimes lost and actions have to be taken to ensure it does not occur again.

We need to learn this as well and stop treating avoidable deaths as though it was just the weather forecast where whether it rains or shines, no one is held accountable. Kenya has been a good example where terror attacks, collapse of buildings or the consumption of lethal brews have grown into a rather normal news item.

Investigations are promised but reports never see the day of light. Those responsible face the media with the same script and continue to draw salaries without much worry and somehow life just goes. What we miss is that such occurrences gradually lower the value we attach to life and can then easily use the word only in reference to other people’s grief.

Another lesson I picked is how we react when these disasters strike. In the western world, it is usually a marshalling of all resources to contain a situation, press statements from security and political leaders, protection and support to the grieved families and a commitment.

We tend to follow almost the same script until the bit of graphic imagery. We seem to have an obsession with horrific images. When terror happens in East Africa for example, you can be sure of viewing more than ten horrific images of the dead and injured even if you are not looking. They will be in the media and all over social media.

During such times, many do not pause to think of how much pain they are sending towards the grieving family members and friends. I remember a former classmate who woke up to a picture of his dead father on the front page of a leading newspaper in Uganda. The dead man was still in a chair with his stomach blown open after a bomb blast in the Kabalagala suburb.

If we stopped to think about each life lost as that of someone close to us may be then we would look at lives qualitatively and not quantitatively without also having to expect the western media to be concerned where we have failed to do the same for ourselves. It is all nothing but a process of learning and unlearning.