04.27.13

Pity Boston, Ignore Nigeria: The Limits of Compassion

Amid the outpouring of grief for Boston, a brutal conflict in northern Nigeria has killed hundreds of people. Why can’t we muster the same sense of empathy, asks Janine di Giovanni?

No one would ever argue that the bombing in Boston was not horrific. But there was something uncomfortable in the obsessive global news coverage, of the bottleneck of journalists flying into Logan Airport struggling to find the smallest remnant of some new detail to report. Was it the suggestion, subtly transmitted, that America is the center of the universe?

Earlier in the week, I watched CNN from my home in Paris, devastated by the pointless killings at the marathon’s finish line. But I found it unnerving to listen to a South Boston columnist ranting on and on about how journalists at the scene could face posttraumatic stress disorder. It sounded as though he was struggling with a new angle, having exhausted his personal supply of misery.

Flipping the channel to BBC World, I caught the end of a report about the conflict in northern Nigeria, on the border of Chad. Images of bloodied corpses and fighting flashed on the screen.

The reporter, a local Nigerian, sounded weary as he duly gave the figures: 137 killed in clashes between the Nigerian military and the suspected Islamic insurgents. The injured were tallied at 77. This was in a single night. As the Financial Times reported, “scores of people” were killed.

I thought back to reporting in northern Nigeria after several states adopted Sharia in 2000. I remember driving to remote villages outside of Abuja, the capital. I drove down dusty red roads for hours. I saw burnt-out churches that had been lit on fire by radical Islamists with worshippers locked inside. I interviewed fathers whose entire families had been wiped out in a single night when their houses were doused with gasoline.

I was traveling with a veteran African correspondent, who after talking to an amputee, turned to me and said, “War is hell anywhere. But war in Africa is body parts in trees.”

I saw a man sitting in stocks, about to be whipped. I interviewed a man whose hand had been chopped off for stealing. He said that the Islamic court had ordered it, but mercifully allowed him a local anesthetic before.

One hundred thirty seven people in northern Nigeria in a single night; hundreds more throughout the conflict. Three people in Boston.

And I must be honest and say that one of my first reactions was about the way those three people looked. They were a graduate student, an adorable little boy, a 29-year-old blonde woman. They were people who looked like me, my son, or the students who gather outside my front door, waiting at the bagel shop for a lunchtime sandwich. That’s part of the reason our compassion lies so deep throughout the Western world. We can relate.

“War is hell anywhere. But war in Africa is body parts in trees.”

Flash to 1994. The genocide of Rwanda is beginning. But the world’s press—myself included—is focused on Bosnia. And the television viewers and radio listeners and newspaper readers are suffering from compassion fatigue. They are tired of Africa. 

“Band Aid nearly killed me,” I remember a wealthy Londoner telling me in the mid 1990s, referring to Bob Geldof’s famous fundraising concert for the Ethiopian famine. “Then there was Somalia. By the time Rwanda rolled around, people had enough of images of starving African children …”

It was a terrible thing to say, but there was some perverse truth to it. It is also the reason why we, as reporters, had trouble keeping Rwanda in the news (and for me, later, stories from Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Zimbabwe ...).

I had dinner the other night with a woman who asked me why so many reporters and people identified with the Bosnian war. I told her that aside from the fact that it was another pointless and brutal conflict, the capital city, Sarajevo, was only a two-hour plane ride from Paris, and that our editors were constantly telling us to find people that readers could identify with.

But this was nothing new. Whenever I got to some obscure African city, the first thing my editor told me to do was to find “the last Brits in the city.” (I worked for a British newspaper. This happened to me whether I was in Africa or Iraq or Afghanistan.)

“Why was that?” she asked me angrily. She said her sister-in-law, who is Rwandan, survived the genocide but lost her brothers and father. “Because the Bosnians were white? Because they were European? Because they were good-looking?”

I cannot condense the horror of either the Bosnian war or the Rwandan genocide in the length of this column. But that woman had a point. Did we, in fact, identify more with the Bosnians because, pre-war, they lived a café society, a cross between the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans? Was it because if you pointed a camera at a young girl, brutally mutilated by a shell, she also looked like someone’s daughter?

Boston will linger forever in our minds, and I don’t want to diminish it. But I cannot forget the image of a Nigerian woman, weeping, after losing her children in this week’s violence. Acres of newspaper inches have been devoted to the dead in Boston. Did anyone write about her?

Boston is still on the front pages. But in northern Nigeria, the sad truth is: who really cares?