The West's Exceptionally Selective Outrage

A month has passed since the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. Can we now have a rational discussion about the selective outrage of the west?

Thu, Feb 5, 2015
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This is the first article in a two-part series


It’s been one month since the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, France. Now that the air has settled, I’d like to reflect on the political response and reactions to the shootings. Before I do, let me state the obvious: loss of life is tragic and the killings in France are an undeniable tragedy. While this is clear, the official reaction to this tragedy and the manner in which it is being officially presented by some western states and media is perplexing, peculiar, disproportionate and even hypocritical.

For instance, western media—including media in the United States—were quick to label the Paris shootings as terrorism and covered the events extensively while the bombing of the NCAAP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) that occurred 24 hours earlier in the US garnered very little media attention and was not immediately labeled terrorism. Till now officials are describing the bombing as “possible” domestic terrorism. While the bombing did not result in loss of life, it is very alarming and points to racial hatred and attempted violence against black communities in the US. Yet for some reason, this is not automatically considered an act or terrorism by western media and officials.

Another observation is that the official reaction to the Paris shooting seems disproportionate, especially if we compare the loss of life and number of people injured in this attack to loss of life and injuries in terrorist attacks of the past, such as 9/11 or the London Bombings of 2005. While the latter two incidents resulted in much greater death and devastation, the Charlie Hebdo response has been immense and highly organized. Three days after the incidents more than 40 world leaders and what officials claims were between 1.2 and 1.6 million people took part in a unity march to honor the 17 victims. Officials claim that the march was the largest gathering in French history. And at a January 13 meeting of the French National Assembly, the whole assembly sang French nationalist song La Marseillaise; the first time the Assembly has done so since the end of the First World War.

While their deaths are a tragedy, what is so unique about the killing of 12 political cartoonists and provocateurs that it warrants the same level of commemoration as that for the millions of lives lost in the First World War? WWI soldiers are believed by many to have died for a noble cause. While I support open and free expression and while I like a good laugh, I don’t see anything particularly noble about making fun of people’s religious beliefs, even if one doesn’t happen to share those beliefs. I don’t recall a similar official outcry when Palestinian political cartoonist, Naji al-Ali, was shot and killed in the UK in the late 1980s. It was revealed that two double agents linked to Israeli intelligence had assassinated him. Then UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was displeased, expelling three Israeli diplomats and closing Mossad’s London base in Palace Green, Kensington. While Britain was officially displeased with the act of terrorism against the political cartoonist, there was no million-strong march in his memory.

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This again begs the question, what is so exceptional about the Charlie Hebdo attacks to warrant such a historically disproportionate response? The Charlie Hebdo victims are not fallen soldiers or “war heroes,” they are cartoonists that made their bread and butter from making fun of—often in inflammatory and provocative ways—religion and Islam in particular. While free speech gives them the right to insult whomever they like, some people—including some newspaper editors and the pope—feel Charlie Hebdo is too inflammatory. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the blatant hypocrisy of the French state celebrating and defending Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech and then arresting French comedian Dieudonné for anti-Semitism and hate speech. This is perplexing, not least because Charile Hebdo directs a lot of insults against Muslims. Also, many Muslims are indeed Semites (i.e., meaning racially or ethnically Semitic).

Some non-western states, like Russia, have had a more tempered official response, denouncing both terrorism and the mocking of religion by the press. But for Charlie Hebdo it’s all in the name of free speech and comedy. And given the fact that their global sales and subscriptions have skyrocketed since the Paris attacks, perhaps, even in the midst of personal tragedy, Charle Hebdo gets the last laugh. Just some things to ponder. 

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