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Worthy Victims, US Imperialism and the Paris Attacks

November 16, 2015

A few days have past since over 100 civilians were killed in the attacks in Paris. In the past 48 hours it has become increasingly clear that the reaction to these attacks within the US reflects the deeply held view that some lives are more worthy than others.

People have been asking others to pray for Paris, while others have been calling for an increased war in Islamic groups. In Michigan, Governor Snyder has suspended a project that would have offered hospitality to Syrian refugees. However, the most common response from people is for them to change their Facebook status to one with the French flag.Manugactorinconsent2

The social media response is instructive on many levels and has already been remarked on by numerous sources. Why is it that so many people are changing their Facebook status in light of the Paris attacks, yet these same people rarely do the same when other parts of the world experience the same kind of violence, often in greater numbers?

In the 1980s, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky co-authored the book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. In that scholarly work, the authors make the point that the US media, in tune with US foreign policy, often demonstrated that there were “worthy and unworthy victims.” For Chomsky and Herman, in the 1980s the US media would give a tremendous amount of attention to violence perpetrated by the Soviet Union, but rarely to foreign governments that were US allies, many of which received military aid and training. Chomsky and Edwards demonstrated that there was more media coverage of the murder of one catholic priest in Poland than the murder of dozens of priests and other religious workers in Latin America. In this case, the Polish priest was a worthy victim, while the religious workers and priests in Latin America were unworthy victims.

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The same could be said of the attacks in Paris, especially when juxtaposed with attacks in Gaza, Afghanistan and US drone strike deaths. How is it that so many people have changed their Facebook status so reflexively in recents days to empathize with France, but so few did the same thing when the US bombed a hospital in Afghanistan recently, when Israel bombed Gaza last year or the cumulative deaths of civilians in US drone strikes in recent years?

For Chomsky and Herman, this is a direct result of how the US media reports on US foreign policy. However, it is also the result of how many Americans internalize the racist practices of US imperialism.

People have already been pointing out how Facebook itself has engaged in a double standard by encouraging people to stand with Paris, while ignoring Beirut. However, some people still say there is nothing wrong with showing sympathy for those who have died in Paris. Maybe so, but if one seriously reflects on the reactions to recent events, it becomes clear that this is about more than sympathy. In fact, the reaction from Americans is a lesson in US imperialism and the shallowness of social media activism.

When violence happens on a large scale it is a normal human reaction to become upset and to empathize with the victims. However, if one is really moved to honest empathy, one will be moved to want to do something to minimize or prevent such actions from happening again. Taking action requires agency and we are more effective in area where we actually have agency.

In the case Paris, there is little that people in West Michigan can do short of making donations to the Red Cross. However, in the case of the attack on the Afghani hospital, the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza or the civilian deaths from drone strikes, there is a whole lot more that we can do, since these civilian deaths are all the direct result of US military activity. In this case, we can prevent further violence, by changing US military policy, by attacking the military industrial complex and by engaging in counter-military recruitment work. Each of these activities are a real demonstration of empathy, unlike the changing of our Facebook status, which is ultimately just symbolic and only meant to make us feel good about ourselves.

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