“Je Suis Charlie; Nous sommes tous Charlie” (We are all Charlie; I am Charlie), rang out defiantly out of France and elsewhere in reaction to the murder of journalists at the offices of the satirical paper – Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
Once again, the world drowned in a massive outpouring of emotion. Charlie Hebdo joined the long list of places – Garissa, Lamu, Westgate, Mombasa and others – that have borne witness to acts of human cruelty.
Meanwhile an enduring mystery stands lonely and in need of interrogation – and it is this: why do human beings react with excessive panic and chorused wailing at death caused by such acts? Why do we react with such magnified (some would say ‘manufactured’) outrage?
I don’t buy the argument that this mass overreaction is solely driven and choreographed by the media. There is something very ancient about this. The march the other day by 3.7 million people in France to protest terrorism came across unwittingly as ‘celebratory mourning’ – a grotesque fiesta.
Is it a behavioural relic from our days of roaming in the African Savanah, where exaggerating explicit and present danger conferred a survival advantage? Whatever its evolutionary origins, it is quite irrational – even hypocritical. Logically and morally, any needless loss of human life is grossly offensive and should elicit moral outrage in all sane people. Right? Wrong. Consider the following examples here in Kenya. Since 2012, less than 500 people have died of terrorist and banditry attacks. But in 2013 alone, 58,000 Kenyans died of HIV/AIDS. That is equivalent to 2 Westgate, two Kapedo and two Garissa massacres daily! This is to say nothing of the nearly 100 children under 5 who die daily of preventable diarrheal diseases, or the estimated 10 people who die daily on our roads.
Globally, fatalities due to terrorism averaged about 8000 between 1992 and 2012, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism database. Contrast that with about 1.5 million deaths from vaccine-preventable deaths annually.
Or, consider these horrific statistics: Since 1997 the war in Democratic Republic of Congo has killed upwards of 6 million people – the largest number of war-related deaths since World War II. This is the same country that lost an estimated 10 million people under the murderous hands of King Leopold II of Belgium from 1885 to 1908. Where is the moral outrage?
Or, consider the way the world has reacted to the Ebola outbreak. In a year, Ebola has killed about 8000 people. Now contrast that with the nearly 6 million people who die each year due to direct tobacco use or exposure. That is approximately 10 people dying every minute. While the world mourned the death of 12 people killed by terrorists last week in Paris, at least 100,000 died quietly due to tobacco use or exposure. Moral hairsplitters and other academic sophisticates will talk about equivalency and argue that terrorist-caused deaths are not morally comparable to tobacco’s ‘self-invited death’. This is lame. The fact is the Tobacco Industry uses guile and stealth tactics in pushing their products knowing full well the harm they will cause. Not to mention their use of strong-arm tactics and bribery to frustrate needed legislation. Their actions should not be judged as being more acceptable morally. Needless human death is the same, whether it comes by way of a terrorist bullet or a scented cigarette stick.
That is what logic would dictate. But then we seem to be fundamentally illogical beings. We are wrapped in a world of distorted reality. In Churchillian phraseology, we are a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Real danger is not overt terrorism but covert, sneaky ‘terrorism’ that comes in many guises. It could come in the form of industrial genocide – where people are forced to work in subhuman conditions in poisonous factories and mines around the world; or the pushing of death products down people’s lungs.
Real danger could come in the form of neo-colonialism in which today whole nations are covertly enslaved and sucked dry by yesterday’s masters of ‘smash and grab’ and ‘conquer and exploit’.
Real danger could even come from panicked misapplication of resources. To understand how this could happen, consider this about the United States. In 2004, the total cost of all robberies in the United States was $525 million. In the same year, employees’ theft and fraud at the workplace was estimated to cost $600 billion. You can guess which crime received more attention and public resources in law enforcement costs, including prosecution and imprisonment.
We are easily spooked into a panicky stampede by abrupt, unpredictable danger – such as terrorist attacks – yet we seem unperturbed by death by stealth. A measured response to the challenge of global terrorism must begin with an acknowledgement that we can be hopelessly irrational and hypocritical.