When tragedies strike in our homelands — whether they are foreign in origin, as with 9/11 and the Madrid bombings, or domestic, as with the Oklahoma City bombing and the Oslo massacre — these events are popularly defined as aberrations. In short, we believe that they belong in other countries.
When tragedy strikes elsewhere, we congratulate ourselves for our democratic sensibilities and the fact that we are not like everyone else. Tellingly, the response to these tragedies, whether at home or abroad, often comes back to the issue of strengthening border controls. However, both the layers of separation and the territorial lines we take for granted are much thinner (and more brittle) than we imagine.
Deaths such as Baraah’s in Yemen cannot be disconnected from the support our elected officials give to such violence. Distance and borders don’t insulate us. This gets back to the notion of collective responsibility. In my case (as an American), this means taking some semblance of responsibility for the death penalty in the U.S., Guantánamo torture, global drone killings and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. It also means asking tough questions, such as, Do the freedoms and privileges I enjoy in any way come at the expense of others being denied those freedoms and privileges? It can be a painful question to ask and answer.
We also need to dissolve the notion that there is little or nothing the individual can do about state-sanctioned violence. The Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. is an outstanding example of how the spread of information on everyday violence against the black community has begun to filter, albeit slowly and not without resistance, into mainstream popular debate. This broad, regular exposure to examples of structural injustice has made the subject of racism one that is difficult to avoid in the U.S. and one that is now addressed at the political level. The type of discussion on collective responsibility that has begun to grow within the U.S. can also evolve at the global level.
Activists, in conjunction with vibrant, independent, critical journalism, are key to moving this conversation forward.
We live and work in increasingly diverse communities. Yet we read or watch the news and continue to assume — because of distance, borders and politics — that these stories are half a world away. The fact is that they may be as close as the person next to you in line at the supermarket, the person you see on the train every morning or the person you know and work with.