On May 5, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo will receive the PEN American Center’s annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award. As of May 1, 145 writers have signed a letter of protest, on the grounds that the award would endorse the Islamophobia many associate with the magazine. Yet beyond a criticism like this, the fact that the Charlie Hebdo attack still occupies so much worldwide attention speaks to a selective memory of human rights abuses. In the months since, atrocities elsewhere have not inspired the same humanitarian response. And this is cause for concern.
As it should be, the savage attack on Charlie Hebdo’s Paris headquarters in January in which 12 were killed threw many of us into a deep stupor. The world stopped. Then, the world moved immediately to demonstrate solidarity with the victims of the attack and the French people. #JeSuisCharlie will certainly go on record as one of the most popular hashtags of 2015, and one of the most memorable for years to come.
Four months later, media outlets in this country and around the world are still dissecting the attack and its aftermath, making sure to imprint it into collective memory. The posthumous publication on April 16 of a book by the slain editor of Charlie Hebdo and the new controversy surrounding the PEN award extend the media and collective focus on the attack. As they should, people around the world will grieve the innocent lives claimed. And in years to come, the world will retreat, on cue, into grief when January 7 comes around.
On January 8, discussions in my two classes at Dartmouth College—“Violence” and “Masterpieces of Literatures from Africa”—converged organically onto the Charlie Hebdo attack. The liberal arts curriculum at Dartmouth and elsewhere equips students with practical skills and knowledge, but it concurrently fosters a type of world awareness and empathetic global citizenship. My students demonstrated this when they swiftly brought the Charlie Hebdo attack to bear on our study of narrative strategies in one class, and on our analysis of René Girard's "Sacrifice" in the second class.
This spring quarter, I am back in the classroom, teaching "African Cinemas" and "Gender Identity and Politics in Africa." On April 2, just a few days after the start of the quarter, Al-Shabaab militants stormed a university in Garissa, Kenya, and savagely murdered 148 students. None of the students in my Africa-centered classes brought up the massacre for discussion. There was not even a mention of the horrific event. If there were ever to be people aware that such a horrific event unfolded, it should be students interested enough in Africa to take an elective class in African studies and, in some cases, on their way to a semester abroad in Ghana or Southern Africa.
My students are outstanding. They are clear-eyed idealists with curious minds, and again and again I am amazed at their intellectual dexterity and the hard work they put into understanding, communicating, creating dialogues, and self-reflecting. It matters to me that they had no knowledge of Garissa. Conversely, it mattered to me that my students knew about and were outraged by the Charlie Hebdo attack.
Philosopher Judith Butler writes about the "division of the globe into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war." That I and my students, and the world at large, could not not know of the Charlie Hebdo attack suggests to me an implicit consensus that those victims are highly grievable. If the PEN Center Award consecrates the high grievability of the Charlie Hebdo victims, the 145 dissenting writers question what is being (not) grieved.
Are some lives less grievable than others? In the case of 148 young Kenyan lives that were lost, there are no plans for a Unity March similar to the one that saw world leaders converge on Paris to show support for the French people. The Garissa massacres barely made it into our newsfeeds or, at best, moved swiftly in and out.
While offering a briefing on the attack, CNN projected a map of Africa that confused Tanzania with Uganda, then placed Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, in Nigeria. The major television networks attended immediately to Garissa, with CBS, ABC, and NBC making the massacre one of the top headlines on their evening newscasts on April 2 and having segments devoted to Garissa on the following days. But by April 6, it had ceased to be a story in the evening newscasts.
Major print newspapers like The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Los Angeles Times also devoted punctual space to Garissa. Yet such coverage, wrapped up almost as soon as it is begun, cannot shape a future collective memory of Garissa. Garissa has not roused the gravitas and sense of urgency that the round-the-clock coverage of Charlie Hebdo conveyed.
The Paris attack was the lead story of major newspapers, evening newscasts, and Sunday news shows. There have been no special news editions devoted to Garissa, and its overall news coverage waned after four days. Even the painful story of parents of the victims retrieving the bodies one week later was not enough to cause a new spike in coverage.
The day after the Garissa massacre, the White House released a statement condemning the attack, and President Barack Obama called Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to express the condolences of the American people. But missing was the media and political attention that surrounded a similar call to French President Francois Hollande and the scrutiny of the White House's statement on the Charlie Hebdo attack. For Paris, we had to get it right. It of course matters that France is an ally of the United States—some of us anxiously scrutinized our government's response for the right pitch, tone, and tempo; others were highly perturbed that Obama failed to attend the Unity March in Paris.
This is indeed the traditional story of the world's core and peripheral zones, and the way global geopolitics and the uneven distribution of influence, presence, and relevance decides for us which lives to grieve. Social media rallied around the victims of Garissa only 10 days after the attack, and the push has now gone. The silence that met Garissa is a haunting echo of another silence earlier this year. In the same week as the Charlie Hebdo attack, 2,000 Nigerians were massacred by Boko Haram. Weeks were to go by before the massacres in Nigeria became newsworthy or trended on social media.
In a widely circulated New Yorker piece entitled "Unmournable Bodies," Nigerian-American commentator Teju Cole writes that "the consensus about mournable bodies" prevents us from relating to ongoing violations of lives around the world. Our belated responses to Garissa, in the wake of our lethargy towards the 2,000 Nigerian victims of Boko Haram, would support Cole's sentiment.
But it would also be incorrect to argue that our media does not pay attention to pain and suffering in Africa. Cole's own essay, "The White Savior Industrial Complex" in The Atlantic, as well as various publications on images of Africa in U.S. media have consistently noted that African bodies in pain and in various stages of degradation oversaturate our media. Yet it matters why, how, and when Africa comes to our attention or shows up in our newsfeeds. If it is only when we are able to cast ourselves in the role of saviors of African lives, then the story is very much about us and about indulging in the spectacle of us as saviors. We were not in Garissa. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie might say, in the absence of Western heroes, there can be no story—no "single story,” that is.
Of course, I would be misguided not to denounce the responsibility and subsequent apathy of African governments towards the massacres on the continent. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hedbo attack, many African presidents were quick to participate in the Paris march. Meanwhile, innocent Nigerians were being massacred by Boko Haram. Many governments in Africa, including those whose officials immediately rallied to Paris, have paltry human rights records. As such, their inattention to Garissa sadly fits a certain logic and course of action. And while African social media has played an important role in ensuring the grievability and proper memorialization of the Garissa victims, the tepid response, or lack thereof, of African governments is simply appalling
Still, we should hold ourselves accountable for our own inattention and lest we fall into the complacent and blindfolded humanitarianism that leads some to embark in misguided campaigns to save African lives. What are we saving when we are saving African lives? Why, for whom, and to what end are we saving African lives? The infantilization, if not dehumanization, of Africans in many campaigns that use them as props for savior identities, fueled by the “single story of Africa,” has roots in our politics of grievable lives. We should champion human rights and lend a hand to fellow global citizens. Help, rescue, and save are among the best words in the dictionary. They are powerful words. They are noble words.
But so is grief. Grievability humanizes the subject. And before any talk of rescue, there should be grief.