The Worlds Reaction
The response to the recent attacks in France has been a mixed one. World leaders and media pundits have flocked to condemn the killings. Vigils have been held across France and the world, defying this apparent assault on our freedom of expression. While many Muslims have been forced to distance themselves from the attacks, due to a fear of reprisals from a growing far right.
However, my intention today is not to vindicate Muslims for the crimes of these men. Nor is to condemn the attackers, who are just one facet of a political struggle for power in the Middle East. My contention is with the conflicting values we seem to place on a human life.
On Wednesday last week, 10 civilians and two police officers were killed by French gunmen of Algerian descent. These two men had been trained in Yemen, a country that has been targeted with US drone strikes since 2009. Within days they were made to pay for these crimes with their lives, in a dramatic hostage situation broadcast across the globe (in full HD of course).
In comparison, back in Yemen two years earlier, 12 innocent people were killed when a US airstrike hit a wedding convoy. But the US government refuses to acknowledge its role in their murder. Two years have passed and there is still no justice for these nameless people. Still no justice for the thousands of innocent Iraqis, Afghans, Yemeni’s and Pakistani’s killed during our supposed war on terror.
My question is simply, why?
Why is it that the loss of an innocent life thousands of miles away does not move us in the same way as those in Paris? Why does the death of journalists in Palestine not cause us to cry out in defence of Freedom of Speech? If every life holds the same objective value, then by standing by those killed in Paris, we must also stand by all those innocent lives lost, irrespective of who pulls the trigger.
The value of a human life
Even when confronted by truths such as these, many of us react with indifference at the loss of innocent lives in such countries. “We are good, and they are evil”, is the kind of one-dimensional thinking used to justify such murders. When Islamist militants are thwarted in distant lands, many of us commend the actions of our armed forces, rather than question the collateral damage incurred. But when a domestic attack takes place, we are moved to tears, anger and retribution. These are, ironically, the very same feelings that compel those in such war torn countries to seek out a similar kind of vengeance.
To some extent, this reaction can be explained as a biological mechanism. While philosophers are free to explore moral questions about the value of a human life, we must also look at how in practice people make this judgement. This is known as Descriptive Ethics. By doing so, we gain an insight into why foreign deaths of non-combatants, such as those killed in drone strikes, is often met with indifference in the West, whereas domestic attacks, such as those is Paris, stir up defiance and sorrow.
By combining the study of Morality with Evolutionary Biology, we start to see the emotional adaptations that influence our moral judgments and behavior. Peter Singer, a prominent ethicist, argues that “evolutionary theory can make a contribution to this debate” by offering us “reasons for believing that some of our emotional attachments are deeply rooted in our nature as intelligent, long lived primates, or even in our nature as social mammals.”
He argues that we as human beings find it easier to empathise with those who fall within certain proximity of our daily lives. As a result, we tend to place a greater value on the lives of our own kin in comparison to our neighbours. In a purely practical sense, this instinctive desire to protect our loved ones ensures the survival of our own genetic lineage. Yet despite this, our neighbours life still holds more importance than a strangers, perhaps because we consider them a friend. So here we can see a clear dichotomy begin to arise – a hierarchical manner in which we value the lives of others, based on moral intuitions acquired through evolution.
Put very simply, we tend to place a greater value on the lives of those who we see ourselves in. Yet with the Enlightenment and universalism – the idea that all sentient life has universality in experience – followed natural rights, then human rights, which bound together notions such as freedom, equality and justice, declaring them inalienable rights of all human beings. To reach such enlightenment ideals however, we had to first break ourselves from this innate way of thinking. So when we use our rational minds, we conclude that any loss of innocent life, irrespective of the context, ought to be met with the same kind of defiance that was shown in response to the Paris attacks.
When innocent people are killed in war, it is not considered murder, but callously labelled “collateral damage”.
Since 2004, an estimated 3212 people have killed by drone strikes in Pakistan. Only 2% of them killed intended targets. The rest are civilians such as women and children. What differentiates this kind of collateral damage from the 17 murders that took place in France?
Some make the distinction that a terrorist attack is a deliberate act of violence on innocent people, while collateral damage is an unintended consequence of warfare. But they are similar in that both cause needless deaths for the political interests of a minority.
War is waged knowing that there will be noncombatants killed, and in that sense, there can be no accidental killing on the battlefield, but only an expectation that some innocent people will die. When noncombatants are killed in drone strikes then, it is no more an accident than an inevitable consequence of war, and therefore no less intentional than the murders committed in France earlier this week.
By allowing such military operations to continue in countries like Yemen and Pakistan, we facilitate extremism by providing a moral justification for groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIL. There is no doubt that the rise of jihadism is in part due to western influence. US backed coups and foreign control of natural resources has led to an anti-western sentiment in these countries. We can extend this thread of causality back to the conquest of Mesopotamia during the Great War, and the subsequent partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. The events that followed, rightly or wrongly, have to led to the volatile situation we see in the region today. Decades of extreme poverty, political repression, and poor education have created a fertile breeding ground for violence. To some extent therefore, we are culpable in the proliferation of extremism at home and abroad.
Thus the lessons we ought to take from this tragic event is that when we escape the constructs of our own subconscious mind, and the biological mechanisms that underpin our thinking, the deaths in Paris only highlight the hypocrisy of our actions, given the thousands killed and injured over the past decade. Similarly, by allowing our governments to continue hostilities in these distant lands, we are partly culpable for the inception and proliferation of these extremist movements. I want to stress that this is not a justification of Islamist aggression, but a call to all who stand by Charlie and by human rights, to use this incident as a catalyst to end all the human suffering caused by our war on terror. So while arguably justice has been restored in France as of yesterday, and calmness will quickly follow, for many millions elsewhere, the nightmare still continues…