Christian Christensen / Al Jazeera America – 2015-08-14 01:33:11
The Collateral Damage Close to Home
Tragedies in Yemen, Gaza and Syria aren’t as far away as they seem
Christian Christensen / Al Jazeera America
Baraah, a Yemeni girl who was killed in a Saudi-led coalition airstrike. Baraah Foundation
(August 13, 2015) — On July 12, a young girl in Yemen named Baraah suffered horrific injuries as a result of a Saudi-led coalition airstrike. Her father was killed in the same attack. Like many people, I am used to reading news of tragedy and seeing a steady, unending flow of horrific images across my computer screen.
Baraah was another name to be added to the long list of children killed or maimed as a result of state violence, another innocent piece of collateral damage in the ongoing global â€œwar on terrorism.â€
Yet for me, Baraah was different. She wasn’t the topic of a story in a major newspaper or television program, nor was her face making a regular appearance on my Twitter feed.
I knew about her because she was the niece of a friend and university colleague who informed me of what had happened. Through my friend, I learned of the second- and third-degree burns that covered 90 percent of her body.
I learned of the efforts on the part of the family to raise the $100,000 needed to give her decent medical care outside a devastated Yemen. I learned how she was placed in a coma in an attempt to reduce damage to her internal organs. And on July 26, I learned of Baraah’s death, after two weeks of incredible suffering, in a hospital in Amman, Jordan.
Those of us living in the relative comfort of countries in the West read stories like Baraah’s with understandable outrage but often with an underlying assumption that there are massive barriers between the victims and us. This assumption is rooted in the persistent belief in the power of national borders.
For all the talk over the past 25 years of globalization and the evolution of a borderless world, many continue to search for solace in the warm embrace of the nation-state, that cocoon that comes to define us as much as by what we’re not as by what we are.
The layers of separation and the territorial lines we take for granted are much thinner and more brittle than we imagine.
When tragedies strike in our homelands â€” 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 â€” 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 US, Guantnamo 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 US 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 US and one that is now addressed at the political level. The type of discussion on collective responsibility that has begun to grow within the US 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 â€” because of distance, borders and politics â€” 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.
Christian Christensen is a professor of journalism at Stockholm University in Sweden.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America‘s editorial policy.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.