The fixation on Garissa

It’s been almost a year since the Charlie Hebdo attack. At the time my Facebook and Twitter feeds were overwhelmed with countless cartoons. Cartoons mourning the dead, cartoons defying the killers and the ideology behind the attack, cartoons defending freedom of speech and… offensive cartoons that had been published by the magazine. The conversation rapidly focused on freedom of speech and the freedom to offend. In the wake of murder people were wondering whether killing because of a drawing was justified or not. How hurt must our feeling be before we find it acceptable to kill someone? This was the open question. It is obvious from how I’m phrasing this, which side I stood on, I belonged to the “freedom of speech must include freedom to offend” group. The debate was heated enough and it stirred such strong emotions that somewhere there I lost a friend.

At the time there was a parallel debate about “who’s right to offend is protected by freedom of speech in the globalized western world”. The idea was that people were okay with offending Muslims and blacks but not Jews for example. That this “freedom to offend” talk only really applied when the ones offended weren’t white and rich. My position on that debate was that, yes I recognize the hypocrisies in people’s stances but that doesn’t change my perspective, that freedom of speech should include freedom to offend. This debate that looks at the discrepancies in passion when white people are injured compared to when other people are injured turned out to be the most persistent debate throughout the year.

A few days after the Charlie Hebdo attack the worst terrorist attack of 2015 (up to now, there are still 2 days to go so we never know) happened in Nigeria. It is estimated that more than 2000 people were killed in Baga, Borno State. If that number is correct Nigeria was the hardest hit country in the world this year with more than 40 attacks and 3000 deaths, with attacks every month except for May. Even if the number of deaths at Baga was lower Nigeria is still the worst hit African country by terrorist attacks in 2015. If we are going to pick a country to symbolize terrorism in Africa in 2015 it has to be Nigeria, especially if we are also using it to symbolize disregard for black victims of terrorism.

The attack in Baga was the first taste of the “why don’t you cry for us” rhetoric that pervaded all conversations of terrorist attacks the rest of the year. “You changed your profile picture for Charlie Hebdo, the magazine that mocked Africans, and you won’t change it for Baga? Shame on you!” said the memes that circulated in January. I remember looking at those memes and feeling annoyed. It’s an obvious play at emotions; a guilt trip and I didn’t like it. Who likes to be guilt tripped? It was because of those memes that I did not change my profile picture to mourn the Baga victims. In comparing Baga to Charlie Hebdo those memes made me realize what countless others hadn’t, that changing a profile picture does not make you care (more or less). It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the Baga victims, I did and probably more than I cared about French cartoonists; but supporting Charlie Hebdo was not about the cartoonists, it was about the idea of free speech, an idea that I was still busy defending. Everyone I know recognizes the massacre in Baga as something horrible, everyone thinks that Boko Haram must be stopped. Not everyone I know recognizes the massacre at Charlie Hebdo as something horrible, some people still think they, the cartoonists, had it coming. That was the reason I chose to stay on Charlie Hebdo at the time instead of moving on to Baga. The point on Charlie Hebdo had not been made; it has not been made even today. The point on Baga is an accepted fact in my circle.

But the whole thing made me realize that I did not want to keep on changing my profile picture disaster-to-disaster, massacre-to-massacre. Since I changed my profile picture after the Charlie Hebdo debates had subsided I haven’t used that as a way to celebrate or mourn events. I don’t know if I ever will again. I don’t judge those that do, but I have decided that it’s not for me (at least up to now). I decided in January to use other ways to say what I mean.

In April Al Shabaab attacked the Garissa University College in Garissa, Kenya. They separated Christian students from Muslim students and killed 148 people. The attack ended the same day when the army took control of the situation. It was the second deadliest terrorist attack in Kenya ever. In the following days we were asked again “why did you change your profile picture for Charlie Hebdo and you don’t change it now for Garissa?” Despite the fact that Garissa got a lot of attention on both social media and the mainstream media, there were many cartoons circulating about the attack, Kenya was trending on Twitter, CNN and BBC covered the attacks many times during that day, this pervasive idea that “we are being ignored” was forming. I remember at the time thinking that people really feel bitter about the attention Charlie Hebdo got.

On the 12th of November two suicide bombs killed 43 people in Beirut. The next day coordinated attacks in Paris ended with 130 people dead. It’s not that the media completely ignored Beirut, they didn’t. On the 12th every major news outlet talked about the bombings. They mentioned it more times than the attacks in Baga and less times than the attack in Garissa. Social media didn’t have time to care about Beirut though, at least in my circles. It usually takes people about a day to start reacting to news, by the time a day had passed on the Beirut bombings the Paris attacks had started and everyone was distracted. The way Beirut was forgotten after the Paris attacks was, to me, chilling. Major news outlets covered Paris every minute of the day, cartoons mourning Paris were shared, comedians reacted to the attacks. It was deemed “the greatest attack on freedom since world war two” (Seriously?!!). No matter how bad the attacks in Paris were, there was no reason from a journalistic point of view, to stop everything else and go cover Paris that way. It was nauseating and annoying.

It is not that we shouldn’t mourn the attacks on Paris. We should. It is not that I don’t understand that for the “western” world Paris hits closer to home than Beirut. I do. But the people that attacked Beirut are the same people that attacked Paris, and the attacks were less than 24 hours apart, surely that should have made the media at least associate the two (obviously not). More than any other “event” this year, the way Beirut was forgotten showed how mainstream media regards some people as more important than others. And because mainstream media is so pervasive a snowball effect happened and everything was about Paris. Even people that usually manage to see beyond the main story, like John Oliver, could only see Paris in front of them.

And then we went back to guilt tripping people. “Pray for Paris” became, “pray for the world”. Social media decided to collectively remind itself that disasters happen everywhere and we shouldn’t make Paris special. It was a collective “don’t you dare cry for them, save your tears for my people”. In the early hours of Saturday all I could think about was a Trevor Noah joke called “death at a funeral” where a jealous aunt gets angry with mourners who start crying for the people who died during the funeral instead of crying for the person they were there to bury. As much as I found the way the news media ignored Beirut chilling I found the way people were policing grief on Facebook ridiculous.

For some reason, that I have failed to understand until today, the attack in Garissa was brought back after Paris. It became a symbol of how “they don’t care about us”. I found that puzzling. First of all, why did people dig out an attack from April that was covered in all media as an example of media dissonance when Beirut was happening at the same time as Paris and was being ignored? Did they not know about Beirut or did they not care? Secondly, as bad as Garissa was it wasn’t the worse attack in Africa or the least covered by international media, it was probably the worst example possible for the point they were trying to make. Thirdly, most of these people that were now going around telling everyone and their mother about Garissa did not give a f*** about the attack back in April when it actually happened. It was one of the most hypocritical attacks on hypocrisy that I have ever seen.

It made me think that people didn’t really care about Garissa or the students that died during the attack. If they had cared about Garissa, they would have cared back in April when it was all over the news. They also didn’t really care about the selective grief and attention of the mainstream media. If they really cared about that, they would be talking about Beirut, because that was the attack that really got sidestepped in terms of coverage.

I was surprised to find out that the Garissa story was not dug out by Africans but by people in America and the UK. In a sense, that does explain why Garissa. It was the most covered terrorist attack in Africa in 2015. The one non-Africans were more exposed to. But I was still puzzled, why Garissa? Why would non-Africans choose the most talked about terrorist attack in Africa to show how the media “doesn’t care about us”. Once again, it would make much more sense to pick Beirut to make that point.

Today I was reminded about Garissa again. “This is the terror attack the world seems to have forgotten this year. If you changed your avi for the French terror attacks but had NOTHING TO SAY abt the terror attacks Garissa Univ. in Kenya that killed 148 students, search yourself and consider how ethnocentric our news and our compassions are!” was Charles Blow’s caption to a photo of a vigil held in Nairobi back in April. He was sharing the photo from Wall Street Journal that had it as one of the “photos of the year”. Do I have to explain the irony in this? I will. One of the forms of irony is when something goes against expectations in an amusing way. So, if we believe that the western media doesn’t care about non-western terrorist attacks then we wouldn’t expect a photo from an very non-western terrorist attack to be featured in western media as photo of the year, and yet it has… at least slightly amusing.

I still don’t understand where this fixation on Garissa comes from. I don’t understand why it has become a symbol of “how ethnocentric our news are”. Of all the tragedies that happened this year Garissa is probably one of the worst examples of selective empathy by the media and people in the West. But most of all I don’t see the point of going on and on about how “no one cared about Garissa” while at the same time completely ignoring the harrowing year that Nigeria had with terrorism. If an African country has to be the symbol of how we were affected by terrorism in 2015, then that country has to be Nigeria. If the point is that we should care about African stories too (and how we have become enlightened to this after the Paris attacks) then how can we focus on Garissa now that there is a famine in South Sudan threatening 30,000 people, not 8 months ago but right now? Do only victims of terrorism count? Isn’t this fixation on Garissa the exact same type of selective outrage that we are criticizing?

But most of all, lets learn to distinguish between “the media wasn’t paying attention” and “I wasn’t paying attention”. Because really, apart from Beirut (and the nauseating covering of Paris), I am not sure we have a valid complaint especially regarding Garissa.