Ignoring Baga

This report from the Guardian‘s Maeve Shearlaw says it all about the difficulty of maintaining some sort of moral equilibrium when atrocities proliferate:

France spent the weekend coming to terms last week’s terror attacks in Paris which left 17 dead. The country mourned and global leaders joined an estimated 3.7 million people on its streets to march in a show of unity.

In Nigeria, another crisis was unfolding, as reports came through of an estimated 2000 casualties after an attack by Boko Haram militants on the town of Baga in the northeastern state of Borno. Amnesty International described as the terror group’s “deadliest massacre” to date, and local defence groups said they have given up counting the bodies left lying on the streets.

Reporting in northern Nigeria is notoriously difficult, journalists have been targeted by Boko Haram, and, unlike in Paris, people on the ground are isolated and struggle with access to the internet and other communications. Attacks by Boko Haram have disrupted connections further, meaning that there is an absence of an online community able to share news, photos and video reports of news as it unfolds.

But reports of the massacre were coming through and as the world’s media focused its attention on Paris, some questioned why they were almost ignored.

Part of the reason may have been the reluctance of Nigeria’s own government, heading for a February election, to draw attention to its own failure to deal with Boko Haram:

Last week, Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan expressed his condolences for the victims of France but stayed silent on the Boko Haram attacks on Baga.

And part of it is undoubtedly the stubborn tendency of Western observers to view mass killings as integral to the messy reality of “backwards” countries. Those people value life less than we do, so accordingly we’ll value their lives less.

Clearly the geopolitical significance of atrocities is not strictly a matter of the relative body counts. But at some point you can no longer ignore “insignificant” massacres without losing a piece of your soul. This is something I think about every time my own country engages in a “casualty-free” military exercise that kills untold numbers of innocents that we never talk about.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.