Ask most people and they will say that all lives are important and that it doesn’t matter if the ‘owners’ of those lives are rich or poor, black or white. It’s something that I have pondered many times over the years but never stopped to analyse – until now.
As I watched the horrific events in Paris unfold last weekend, the body count kept mounting along with the numbers of those seriously injured. Television news coverage was incredibly comprehensive as reporters told this dark tale in the City of Light. We have become accustomed to reports of terrorism around the world but somehow this was different – this was a European capital, not Kabul, Damascus or Abuja. Condemnation from world leaders was swift, as everyone moved to show solidarity with the French. Soon, Facebook, What’sApp and BBM would be awash with messages of sympathy and condolence.
Here in Nigeria, ‘Pray for Paris’ images appeared overnight on the profiles, statuses and display pictures of virtually every adult’s phone. At first glance, I thought that this was a natural reaction, given the rise of domestic terrorism in the last few years and the feelings of empathy that would result. However, there was some dissonance in the midst of that huge wave of emotion, best expressed by one friend’s BBM status: “If all of you are praying for Paris, who will pray for Nigeria?” The sentiment seemed bold, defiant and unapologetic.
It could be interpreted as unsympathetic to Parisians and a tad nationalistic, but it struck a chord in me. I tried to remember if I had ever seen ‘Pray for north-eastern Nigeria’ in response to the endless slaughter and kidnapping of thousands of Nigerians. Similarly, I had no memory of ‘Pray for Abuja’ after any of the suicide bomb blasts that claimed scores of victims. I could recall the ‘Bring back our girls’ social media campaign but that was popularised by US celebrities and Michelle Obama, forcing Nigerians to take ownership. Prior to that, the relatives of the kidnapped Chibok girls and a few supporters had conducted a lonely protest in the face of government denial.
Is it possible that, for most Nigerians, these lives matter less? Or is it that we are used to the wanton loss of life in this country, while the idea of something similar happening in a seemingly safe country is quite shocking? Perhaps it’s the notion that they have immigration, security and defence systems that should protect them and we are surprised when they don’t. Or is it something much deeper?
The ‘Black lives matter’ campaign in the USA may offer a clue. This growing protest has been in response to the much-publicised killings of unarmed, young African-Americans by the police. Detractors like to point out that ‘black-on-black’ homicide claims even more victims, as if somehow this negates or justifies the actions of errant law enforcement. But, no matter which side of the argument you’re on, one fact is undeniable – the loss of these lives never merits the kind of blanket media coverage that occurs when there is a shooting at a mostly White school.
At home in Jamaica it’s a little different but not that far removed. Violent crime is largely confined to poorer communities and is a bi-product of gang activity in the drug trade. As a result, the victims are seen as ‘involved’ or connected in some way to the perpetrators. However, the reaction of the security forces, media and wider society is substantially heightened when a prominent member of society is affected or the safety of a prosperous suburb is breached. Somehow, it matters more.
As the French strike back at Isis in Syria, I wonder how many of us will spare a thought for the innocent victims who will be classed as ‘collateral damage’ when the bombs go astray. Will we be equally horrified at the carnage when it claims as many lives as those lost in Paris? Perhaps we will find a way to justify a new massacre because it’s retribution for the wonderful people in one the greatest capitals of all civilisation.
Do some lives matter more? If you’re honest with yourself, the answer is likely to be ‘yes’. Those lives that belong to the people we aspire to be like – the wealthy, the educated, the sophisticated and especially the famous. They matter more than the poor, ignorant, unknown masses whom we secretly despise. We regret their passing but not enough to show our sympathy, solidarity or support.
If your answer is ‘no’, then continue to pray for Paris even as you pray for all the innocent victims of war, terrorism and violent crime. Raise your voice wherever you see injustice and a blatant disregard for the sanctity of life.
Black lives matter. Poor lives matter. Muslim lives matter. There will be much need to remember this in the days ahead.