Things are never as simple as they seem writes Waleed Aly: Inequality in death reigns as it does in life (SMH July 25, 2014). While this story is now 8 years old, the content, nevertheless, rings true. Write Aly:
“I have been thinking a lot lately about the value of human life. About the lives so cheaply lost on MH17. About the anger and grief this tragedy has unleashed.”
But I’ve also been thinking a lot about why it is these lives particularly that have earned such a response. The more I heard journalists and politicians talk about how 37 Australians were no longer with us, the stranger it began to sound. Something of that magnitude happens just about every week on our roads, for instance. In the last week for which we have official data, 29 people were killed this way. The youngest was aged two. We held no ceremonies and we had no public mourning of the fact that they too, were no longer with us.
Why? I don’t ask critically, because I’m as unmoved by the road toll as anyone. But it’s surely worth understanding how it is we decide which deaths matter, and which don’t; which ones are galling and tragic, and which ones are mere statistics. We tell ourselves we care about the loss of innocent life as though it’s a cardinal, unwavering principle, but the truth is we rationalise the overwhelming majority of it. What does that tell us about ourselves?
Waleed then goes on to discuss the terrible death and destruction in Gaza, where over 600 people were killed. He writes: “There’s grief, there’s anger, and there’s some international hand-wringing, but nothing that compared with the urgency and rage surrounding MH17, even if there is twice the human cost.”
He goes on to note that what plays out in each of the circumstances we select to focus on, “a universal principle” is at work. “It is not not merely the death of innocents that moves us, even in very large numbers. It is the circumstances of it that matter. We decide which deaths to mourn, which to ignore, which to celebrate and which to rationalise on the basis of what story we want them to tell.”
“Palestinian deaths matter more than Sudanese ones if you want to tell a story of Israeli aggression. Israeli deaths matter more than Palestinian ones if you want to tell a story of Hamas terrorism. Asylum seeker deaths at sea matter more than those on land if you want to tell a story about people smuggling. But a death in detention trumps all if your story is about government brutality. And a death from starvation matters if you want to tell a story about global inequality – which so few people do. Everyone will insist they’re merely giving innocent human lives their due. And that’s true, but only in the most partial sense. These are political stories driven by political commitments.”
Thought provoking and worth us reflecting on as we ponder the news events of the day and weigh up what to pay attention to and where to focus our energies as we go about each day, listen to each news bulletin, watch each news program, since much of the news is about death and dying in tragic circumstances. As for the remainder of our lives, well that is simply a compilation of all the days making up the next week, month, year and so on. Which life will matter will be determined by our worldview and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and which lives matter to us and to the larger earth family of human and other than human beings,