The Uneven Distribution of Violence and News

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The first I heard of the shootings in Paris was on the email list of the certified trainers with the Center for Nonviolent Communication that I am part of. Someone sent a message of sympathy to the French trainers. I don’t check news, so most often I don’t know the details of what happens. After seeing that message, I looked it up, and then I found out there was a previous and recent such event in Beirut, not nearly as well covered. I instantly felt a pang of wrenching despair about the persistence of these differences in reporting.
I did nothing at the time with that feeling.
Then, when a colleague – Christophe Vincent, originally from France, now residing in Brazil – expressed, in his words, what I experienced as a vastly expanded rendition of my own discomfort, I found my own voice in response to his. This piece emerged from that original response. I am grateful to Christophe for supporting me in this unexpected way, and I quote from his writing, with his permission, later.

Which Violence Counts?

Here is how I finally came to understand my discomfort: It is as if the entire world is complicit in some unconscious belief that violence in some parts of the world is unavoidable, part of life, and therefore not important, and only some parts of the world, those that have managed to export violence elsewhere, or created it elsewhere to begin with through the legacy of their actions, those are the parts of the world about whose rare acts of violence news media speak.
I come from such a place. The Jewish citizens of Israel expect to live in peace and security, because they have managed to export the source of it outside the borders of Israel, where it goes unnamed, unnoticed, except by those who experience it on a daily basis; those who don’t necessarily know, when they go to sleep, if they will get through the night or be awakened by Israeli soldiers. It is only when it comes back to Israel that it becomes newsworthy. Just like in Paris.
Knowing that the existence of a state of Israel, which Jews are free to emigrate to without any risk of being disallowed, that this existence – and the language and culture that emerged with it – are sitting on top of a fundamental injustice haunts me to a degree that leaves a permanent mark on my days. And sometimes it spikes to an unbearable degree.
It still is the case, as I understand it, that Facebook, which made a French flag available for posting, hasn’t made Kenyan, Lebanese, or other flags available. It is still the case, as I heard from a friend this evening, that although there have been articles bemoaning the absence of coverage of other sites of focused violence, they have been immediately followed by more of the same. It is still the case that here, in the US, we only hear of a fraction of the black churches that are being bombed.
And there is more, which is even harder to contemplate, to think through fully, to articulate. I find it hard to fully shake off the conclusion, implicit in the work of Black Lives Matter, that part of why we don’t hear the news of violence in some other parts of the world is also because brown-skinned lives are not considered as important as pink-skinned lives.

Violence and Privilege

I have been so aware, for so long, how much the basic ability to walk up and down the streets expecting not to be killed is a huge privilege that so many, in so many places, don’t have. Basic safety, along with food, running water, electricity.
In Brazil, even as we speak, a dam broke, likely due to cost cutting measures that compromised safety, and let through contaminated, toxic water that affected 500,000 people directly, destroyed habitats, and affected untold more indirectly. Did you know that?
Privilege is as invisible as air to those who have it. It is “normal”, just how the world functions. In our modern world, all the more so, as the cost of privilege is made invisible to us, often exported to faraway lands.
There is a direct link between our ability to walk into a store and get gadgets that are easily affordable to us, even after unimaginable profits to the CEOs, and the fact that billions of people, including children, are toiling away at hard-to-imagine conditions, making less than two dollars per day. Somewhere in that picture, thousands of children die daily because of lack of access to adequate food: directly from starvation, or through diseases of malnutrition. Thousands. Every day.
This is violence, daily violence, that we don’t see. Their conditions, we are told, are because they are a “developing” nation. As if there is any chance of them, ever, arriving at the basic privileges we all take for granted in the industrialized world, without awareness of the historical and current violence that is making it possible for us to have them. As if “development”, western-style, is by necessity what everyone in the world would want, the highest good, the model and the standard.
Hundreds of thousands of people were killed (estimates range from 110,000 to a million), injured, orphaned (870,000 by 2008 in a UN estimate) and displaced by the war that the US started in Iraq, but how many of us know that? We only hear of the people in France whose deaths are indirectly related to the horrors in Iraq.
There is massive violence in the Congo that is directly related to the proliferation of cell phones. Congo, tragically, has the highest concentration anywhere on the planet of certain rare earth metals that are used in cell phones. The mining of these metals is not a benign activity, and in a complicated way is intertwined with the killing of people and with violence against women in particular. Most people know nothing about it. We don’t have to, because it’s happening to someone else, somewhere else. For those of us in the privileged parts of the world, violence is sanitized away from our lives.

Can We Transform Violence?

The easy explanation given to us about the source of the violence is that these are evil people, made more evil by their participation in an evil religion called Islam, who hate “us” for no good reason. This explanation is, in itself, an aspect of the uncoupling of a particular instance of violence occurring in the centers of power in the world from the legacy of colonialism and the current continuation of imperialism which are at their root.
Quoting from Christophe:

This almost exclusive focus of the media and also of the people on what is happening in Paris … is it not, for those who attacked, a motivation to take up arms, to shout against injustice, to be heard using all means available…?
So, if the message of those who attacked Paris was to be heard, tragically, did we really hear something, or did we simply continue that violence loop?
I can connect to what makes people choose to put a French flag on Facebook, show solidarity, receive empathy by belonging… however, I believe this gesture is far from being without consequences in the interdependence dynamics of this world…

In the days since, I read about an interview with an ISIS prisoner in Iraq. The person interviewed simply doesn’t fit the bill. I would urge you to read this article, because the picture of the person painted in it is so far from the evil monster that is often imagined. Instead, he is a young man, oldest of 17 siblings from two mothers, struggling to feed his family. More than anything, there is one line that the prisoner (no name identified) said which directly speaks to Christophe’s inquiry: “The Americans came,” he said. “They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.”
And the response? Nothing that leads me to any hope of change.
In the one article that I read about what happened in Paris, I saw something about the head of state of France speaking of France’s response being “ruthless.” I wanted to scream. How many more thousands of years will it take before people see that there is no safety that comes from more and more of the same, only more and more of the same? What will it take for people to see that the way to transcend violence is to support everyone’s needs, including especially for dignity and for mattering?
This is one of those moments where vision eludes me. Yes, attending to needs prevents violence. Still, there is violence already happening, and what is a truly nonviolent response to that? I only know the first step: to expose and name, without condemning, the connections between things. It’s the courage to speak truth with love.
What comes after speaking? What is the action that we could take? What would I do if the responsibility for responding to such violence was mine rather than someone else’s? What is the minimal, truly most minimal force that would be needed to protect lives from fresh violence with the least damage possible? What of all the violence that has already happened, that continues to happen, unnamed because structural, often to buttress and sustain the comforts of those now suffering the acute violence? Where, if anywhere, do we put a line and say “we start from here going forward, because we cannot attend to all that has happened, all that created where we are?” Where will there be a so-called leader with the capacity to reverse the escalating cycle of violence?
We have created a system that, for the most part, doesn’t require bad guys for truly horrific violence to happen on a daily basis. We have created a world so fraught with violence, that we almost don’t respond most of the time. Christophe called it “habituation to violence”, the process that, in his words:

… makes my heart not shattered by the death and suffering of those that are far away from my direct experience… not shattered because maybe not totally open to the possibility to be shattered again, in front of so many events that would lead me to spending each hour of each day crying when I see the pain in this world…

I want to be open enough to cry each hour of each day.
Maybe then I can imagine what to do. Maybe if all of us do we will be able to live up to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most intense invitation, during a Christmas sermon given to a community that was facing repeated acts of terror. Although the circumstances are radically different, the excruciating challenge of loving in the face of violence remains and grows as the violence in the world takes more and more center stage.

Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

Image credits: top: headline from
“Save the Children” by Danny Hammontree, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
“Nigerian Lives Matter”, by Garry Knight, 1/25/2015, Flickr, CC BY 2.0