‘Popular’ tragedies: Contemplating Paris and Baga, and Sydney and Pennsylvania

January 16, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 16, 2015

Everyone knows about the three deadly days that occurred in and around Paris last week. On Jan. 7, 12 people died in an attack on the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. The following day, a police officer was fatally shot by a man linked to the attack on the magazine.

On Jan. 9, that same man and an accomplice took hostages in a kosher grocery store in a Parisian suburb. French police stormed the shop, helping to rescue 15 hostages. Four civilians and the gunman suspected in the Jan. 8 murder died; the second gunman escaped.

Also on Jan. 9, two brothers who were suspected of participating in the Charlie Hebdo assault holed up in a rural community northeast of Paris. Authorities entered the building at the same time as the grocery store. The brothers died.

The final toll: 17 civilians and police died, as did three gunmen.

As I said, everyone knows about the events in France, which helped launch a popular slogan, “Je suis Charlie.” President Obama’s failure to attend Sunday’s massive Parisian rally in support of free speech, or to send a high-level representative to the event, also drew a great deal of criticism, mainly from conservatives. (The White House later apologized for this oversight.)

What’s less well known is an even more horrific incident: The massacre of perhaps 2,000 civilians in Northern Nigeria, blame for which has been attributed to the terrorist group Boko Haram.

CNN described the attack, which started on Jan. 3, this way:

The attackers sped into a Nigerian town with grenade launchers — their gunfire and explosions shattering the early morning calm.

As terrified residents scattered into bushes in Baga town and surrounding villages, the gunmen unloaded motorcycles from their trucks and followed in hot pursuit.

Residents hid under scant brush. Bullets pierced them.

Some sought refuge in their homes. They were burned alive.

Many who tried to cross into neighboring Chad drowned while trying to swim through Lake Chad.

Details of the Baga massacre began surfacing last week and are still emerging. The attacks displaced as many as 30,000 people, and hundreds of refugees were reportedly stranded without food, shelter or medicine on a mosquito-infested island.

Yet the events in France have attracted much more attention than the atrocity in Nigeria. When I searched Google for the term “Boko Haram” and the words Baga and attack, the website returned about 3.5 million results. When I plugged in “Charlie Hebdo” and the words Paris and attack, there were about 192 million results — roughly 55 times more. A check of Google Trends confirmed that interest in the developments in France was far higher than in the Nigerian offensive.

The disparity in media coverage between these two events reminds me of a similar gap related to a pair of tragedies that took place last month.

Shortly before 10 a.m. local time on Monday, Dec. 15, a 49-year-old gunman entered a cafe in Sydney, Australia. Seventeen workers and patrons were held captive. Because the cafe was located in the heart of the city, the incident triggered a sort of mass exodus from the city’s downtown. The standoff ended about 16 hours after it began when police stormed the business. Two hostages and the gunman were killed.

The Sydney incident attracted enormous attention. Much less covered was a horrifying event that occurred in the outer Philadelphia suburbs. On the morning of Dec. 15, a 35-year-old former Marine started a killing spree that claimed the lives of his ex-wife, Nicole Stone, and five of her family members. (As this started, the Sydney standoff was approaching its conclusion — there’s a 16-hour time difference between Philadelphia and Sydney.)

Authorities searched for the suspect in the Pennsylvania killings, who was considered armed and dangerous. His body was found on Dec. 16. It was ultimately determined that the killer had committed suicide by ingesting a poisonous cocktail of drugs.

About twice of many people died at the hands of the Pennsylvania spree killer as died in the Sydney cafe standoff. However, after trying a few searches on Google related to the murders of Stone and her relatives, the one that turned up the most results was for the (rather generic) words “killing spree Pennsylvania.” This yielded around 906,000 hits. A check of Google Trends essentially shows that the murders of Nicole Stone and her mother, grandmother, sister, brother-in-law and niece barely registered.

My search for the (similarly generic) “cafe Sydney hostages” turned up more than 3.7 million results. In this case, the less deadly incident generated more interest by a factor of about four.

Why did the significantly bloodier event attract less interest in both cases? The reasons surely vary. The fact that the gunmen in Paris and Sydney claimed to have been motivated by so-called Islam extremism surely made both of those stories especially newsworthy; so too did the fact that they occurred in places where gun violence is relatively rare.

The fact that the Sydney and Paris attacks were staged in cities also made a significant difference, I think. Video showing aspects of both incidents quickly became available; infamously, a clip showing the murder of French policeman Ahmed Merabet spread rapidly through Facebook after it was posted by a shocked eyewitness who saw the event from a building near Charlie Hebdo’s offices. (The poster removed the video from his social media page after a relatively short amount of time; less than an hour after he did so, The Telegraph’s Harriet Alexander reported, the man saw his deleted clip playing on TV.)

By contrast, the sites of the killings outside of Philadelphia and in Northern Nigeria — well, they weren’t quite as accessible, especially Baga, which is in a remote and very dangerous location.

It’s also a bit harder to politicize the massacre in Baga. The Charlie Hebdo assault raises complex questions about the right of free expression and the limits of good taste, as well as how Obama’s administration should have responded to the incident. It’s much much harder to come up with anything favorable to say about Boko Haram.

It is possible to debate policy and politics related to the slaying of Nicole Stone and her relatives. However, the incident hardly seems exceptional, and not just because the Sydney hostage crisis dominating the news cycle at the moment. Sadly, six murders by an angry ex-husband just don’t attract all that much attention in America.

If there had been more killings, perhaps the deaths of the Stones would have drawn more attention. Remember how much news coverage was devoted to the December 2012 Newtown, Conn., massacre, in which 20 elementary school students and seven adults were killed…the September 2013 Washington Navy Yard assault, which left 12 dead…the July 2012 Aurora, Col., movie theater shooting, which also killed 12…the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, which claimed a record 32 lives…or the April 1999 slaughter of a dozen students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Col., which seems to have inspired a number of subsequent copycat killing sprees. (These tallies come from CNN, which does not include the suspects in any of the shootings.)

I list those incidents for two reasons. One is that it seems to take a death toll in the double-digits before America really pays attention. The other is that even when the butcher’s bill is high, the nation may not respond with substantial changes.

Gun control (or gun rights or gun safety; choose your preferred term) were debated a great deal after the Aurora and Newtown slaughters. The upshot, however, is that even the tragedies of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and Virginia Tech have prompted only relatively modest changes in gun laws. Their effectiveness won’t be clear for years to come.

At any rate, we shouldn’t only be concerned for the victims who live closest to us, or the ones whose deaths are featured most prominently in the news. Just because someone’s pain is relatively unknown doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of our sympathy.


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