Yesterday 680 alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as its top spiritual leader, were sentenced to death in Egypt for the killing of a single police officer during a riot last summer.
This morning, U.S.A. Today’s website featured an article about the continued mystery of the Malaysian missing flight, new information on Amanda Knox, an artist who draws his inspiration from Walmart, and even a headline titled “Monkey slaps news anchor on camera”. Out of over 50 front-page stories, there was not a single mention of the 680 people sentenced to death without evidence against them nor a fair trial – the 680 people sentenced to death because of what they allegedly believed, because of their religious convictions. Just one day after this affront to human rights, neither the New York Times, the L.A. Times, nor CNN featured any related articles on the homepages of their websites either.
As I peruse popular media sites, the sentiments aroused by the mass death sentence seems ambivalent. Disapproval, certainly, but more obvious is disinvestment. “This how you deal with Islamists who are intent upon telling everyone how they should live their lives”, one commented on the LA Time’s article. And indeed, we Westerners aren’t particularly sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political engagements or social platforms. So, without a clear sense of right versus wrong, white versus black, good versus evil, our reaction reduces to the absence of action.
Yet, after our failure to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda, we’ve been humbled by our blindness and moved by dramatic renditions of the atrocities committed. We watched “Hotel Rwanda” and felt an overarching oneness with the victims. Never again, we said.
But, the truth is, compassion isn’t blind. Victimhood is a status that must be earned. Yet earned not only through suffering, or unjust persecution, but through an array of qualities that position the suffer as pure, innocent, nonthreatening, and worthy of intervention.
In Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky (2002 ) forward a “propaganda model” in which the media’s presentation of news, suffering, and victimization is biased by political structures and geopolitics. They explore the ways in which “worthy victims” and “unworthy victims” are formed, positing that victims of the U.S.’s “enemy states” are subject to more intense and indignant coverage than victims of the U.S. or U.S. client states. By focusing on ‘worthy’ victims, the perceived iniquity of enemy states is reinforced and U.S. intervention and hostility is further justified.
For example, they assert that the powerful and emotionally laden word ‘genocide’ is applied readily to cases of victimization in enemy states, but rarely (if ever) to cases of victimization by the U.S. or its allies. The Hussein regime of Iraq committed genocide against its people, but the U.S. ally Turkey merely “repressed” its Kurdish population.
Using media coverage as a proxy for victim “worthiness”, Herman and Chomsky compare the mass media coverage of the murder of a Polish priest in 1984 to the coverage of the murders of dozens of priests during the same period in U.S. “client states” of Latin America. News of the slain Polish priest dominated headlines and both quantitatively and qualitatively dwarfed coverage of the others murders, which went barely noticed in the public. If media coverage can be used as a proxy for public value, they claim that the Polish priest was valued between 137 and 179 times that of any single priest victimized in a U.S. “client state”.
Sadly, since the late 1980’s, not much has changed. Only some victims are privileged, only some forms of suffering recognized. But we are blind to the ways in which we, as citizens of a powerful, moneyed, and largely Christian country privilege certain forms of suffering while we turn our back on others, tacitly deeming some sufferers “unworthy”.
It isn’t a coincidence that those most capable of arousing our sympathies, that those whose anguished (and yet beautiful) faces populate the covers of websites, TV ads, or NGO publications are fairly homogenous. They are young, female, and brown. They are the quintessentially non-threatening.
“Mothers and children make ideal victims”, writes Moeller (1999: 107) in her discussion of the television coverage of famine. “Men associated with violent political factions can starve by the thousands without creating a flutter of interest in their victim status. The men are culpable, it is assumed, in not only their own deaths, but in the deaths of the truly blameless. Only when victims have been identified as ‘bona fide’ are they candidates for compassion”, she asserts.
In a study on the reactions of Scandinavians to news coverage of distant atrocities, Höijer (2004) found that while coverage of children, women, and the elderly in Macedonia elicited compassion and indignation, the televised suffering of middle-aged men did not. A man in a refugee camp looked into the camera, begging to be brought to Norway, begging to for help. Instead of compassion, he aroused sentiments of anger in research subjects. He wasn’t considered sufficiently helpless or innocent, rather, he was considered selfish and unmanly. One respondent said:
“I thought it was a shame to behave as he did when you think about all the pregnant women and sick people. They need to be helped and he should have begged for them. He should have said: ‘Please help them!’”
So what happens when the suffer is male? When he potentially espouses a strict interpretation of Islam? When he is 25 or 35 years old? When he’s angry? Does he merit our sympathies, our compassion, our indignation, our search for answers, and our demands for justice? Or, do we brush him aside, see him as a victim of a broken system, or even approximate his culpability?
It shouldn’t be surprising that nearly every article published about the mass death sentences was accompanied not by images of those condemned to death, but rather by images of their female loved ones and supporters. Images of women screaming, sobbing, wailing, and fainting. The images invite us not to feel compassion for the men unjustly detained, as these men are rendered invisible. We don’t see those unfairly stripped of their rights to freely practice their religion, to create communities, and engage politically with their government. Rather, it is their wives, their mothers, their aunts, and their children who are rendered visible – the true victims. The victims who are worthy.