“Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And finally, what makes for a grievable life?” Judith Butler asks in Precarious Life. As Facebook profile pictures turned blue, white and red last weekend and the Western world begins to mourn the over 150 people killed and 300 injured in the Paris attacks on 13 November, the question on so many lips is, ‘Why aren’t we praying for Beirut, for Mexico, for Japan, for Burundi?’
What #PrayforParis shows is the illegibility of unrecognised bodies and the politics inherent in mourning one group of people but not another. “Certain lives will be highly protected, and the abrogation of their claims to sanctity will be sufficient to mobilise forces of war,” Butler predicted 11 years ago. She was writing post-9/11, but she could have been writing about this weekend’s carnage, or the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January.
France in Syria
In early September this year France began air surveillance of Islamic State (IS) training camps. On 27 September France launched an airstrike on a Syrian camp that president François Hollande told the United Nations “threatened the security of our country”. This was supposed to be reassurance to French voters that France would fight back when attacked, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January. And under a month later, France is in a state of national emergency after the attacks allegedly by ISIS at the Bataclan, Stade de France, Le Petit Cambodge, Charonne, Beaumarchais and on Avenue de la Republique in Paris on 13 November. Hollande has called the attacks an “act of war”. And so the cycle begins.
Happening simultaneously is the entry into Europe of thousands of Syrian refugees trying for the most part to get to Germany and France, where the economies are strongest. Germany has welcomed the massive influx of cheap labour into their over-skilled market but France’s anti-immigration conservative far-right, National Front (FN) led by Marine le Pen, has been gaining ground in the last two elections and as of May 2014 holds 24 of France’s 74 seats in the European Parliament, a fact that should make most refugees reconsider their options.
In October le Pen demanded France leave the Schengen area which would entail closing its EU borders, and said of the refugee crisis, “We have to stop state medical care, stop the reunification of families, stop the various welfare benefits and stop centres from receiving migrants.” She also called the situation of 2000 refugees hoping to travel to the UK from the port of Calais a “jungle”.
The construction of the unrecognizable and ungrievable ‘other’
It is this kind of othering, this kind of animalisation and outright dehumanisation that trickles down into conservative news channels that dehumanize the ‘other’ and thereby make the lives of those ‘not like us’ ungrievable, be they refugees in Greece or the victims of suicide bombings in Beirut. Unfortunately this kind of othering is not unusual in the media, or in politics. In July UK Prime Minister David Cameron labelled the same group of refugees at Calais a “swarm”. John Oliver on Last Week Tonight notes that many media organisations present all refugees as potential terrorists, simply by conflating extremist radicalism with Islam.
According to the BBC, a Syrian passport and an Egyptian passport have been linked to the suicide bombings at Stade de France during the attacks. A French citizen has also allegedly been identified as a participant in the attacks, but with the qualification by news reports that he had ‘a history of involvement in radical Islam’. This implies that while it is normal to assume a Syrian might be part of the attacks, the fact that a French citizen participated needs explanation.
Cultural framing of humanity
Butler hits at the heart of this ignorant and irresponsible framing of human lives when she asks, “How do our cultural frames for thinking the human set limits on the kinds of losses we can avow as losses?” By understanding Muslim people as extremists and refugees as a ‘swarm’ and therefore different from the implied ‘you and I’, the unidentifiable and unrecognised body becomes unworthy of protection and unworthy of mourning. Which is why Facebook allows the option to turn your profile picture blue, white and red, but not the colours of the Lebanese, Iraqi, Iranian or Syrian flags. This sets up a hierarchy of who is mourned and in what ways, and it makes our compassion fatigue all the more disgusting.
But the fact is that we do have compassion fatigue. The Middle East (that problematically homogenised region) has been a conflict zone since Before the Common Era (BCE). Terrorist attacks in Paris are new and troubling because the Western media do not consider them to be the norm, whereas a car bomb in a dusty place most people can’t find on a map is no longer a news story. And this is a contributing factor to the hierarchising of lives that allows the Western world to mourn Paris, but not Beirut, Mexico or Japan.
The media caters to an indignant and self-righteous audience and the audience is no longer interested in car bombs and suicide bombs and mass killings in far-flung places, unless these are mediated through the Paris attacks as so many Facebook statuses by politically unaware people suggest they might be. If ISIS is trying to get the West’s attention, they’ve got it now, by bringing the news story to our front door. Destroying historic artefacts and murdering thousands of Syrians wasn’t having the desired effect, but the world is paying attention now.
That it took this tragedy to make us pay attention and to consider the worth of the lives of ‘others’ might be the most disturbing part of all.