Posthumous inequity

Some colleagues have explained this double standard using the lens of racism

Muhammad Hamid Zaman April 09, 2024
The author is a Professor and the Director of Center on Forced Displacement at Boston University


Feeding the hungry has always been a noble act. Across religions, cultures, traditions and societies, those who feed the hungry are admired and respected. Perhaps it is the universality of admiration for those who feed the hungry that the killing of seven aid workers — who worked for World Central Kitchen, an aid agency focusing on feeding the hungry in humanitarian emergencies and famine — in Gaza provoked such a global response. There was widespread condemnation, and governments from the US and the UK to Australia and Poland wanted a swift, transparent and thorough investigation. Israeli government issued its apology, and two days later dismissed two senior officers who were supposedly involved in the deadly attack on the aid workers.

While tragedy that unfolded in Gaza on April 2, with the killing of seven aid workers, has gotten many around the world upset, there are also important questions being asked. The seven incredible people who died doing the most noble of the deeds were among the many others who have been killed in this war while feeding the hungry and nursing the wounded. Why are those people — whose numbers are way more than 7 — not given the same attention? Does anyone even know their names? Or know how many are there? Why is there such silence? Is our anger based on the colour of the passport someone carries? Or the colour of their skin? If someone is stateless and dies doing the the exact same job as a citizen of a rich country are they dispensable? Which of the dead get counted and remembered and which ones are simply a statistic?

Some colleagues have explained this double standard using the lens of racism. I think there is some merit to that. But I am not sure that explanation paints the whole picture. We do not have to look far to see that we practise something quite similar. In the last few months, a series of incidents have resulted in tragic deaths of dozens of law enforcement personnel. In some of these tragedies, senior officers lose their lives. In others, it is only the low-ranking personnel. But if commissioned and non-commissioned personnel lay their lives for the country doing the exact same thing, why is it that one group gets more attention than the other? The low-ranking personnel do not get the same attention: in funeral attendance by the national leadership, in condolence visits to the bereaved family by ministers, or in media coverage, than the commissioned officers. If the sacrifice is the same, why is our attention, grief and support focused more on one group than the other?

The reality is that the colour of skin, national origin, citizenship or rank are all forms of privilege — and our grief, outrage or demand for inquiry are subservient to these privileges. By choosing to be more upset when it is a citizen of a rich country, or when it is a higher ranking official, we send a clear message to the loved ones of the less privileged about our lack of empathy for their suffering. When European countries open their doors for Ukrainian refugees but shut the same doors for Syrians or Afghans, they reinforce this message. When a Palestinian bakery is destroyed and no one notices, we send the same message. When a constable is killed by an IED and the news is somewhere on the back page and with his name barely mentioned, we send the same message. It is not to say that Ukrainian refugees are not worthy of support, or the killing of the World Central Kitchen aid workers is not awful, or the sacrifice of the senior officer dying in the line of duty is not significant, it is simply to say that we should reexamine the boundaries of our empathy, support and outrage. The world remains unjust and unequal not because that is the way it is; it is because we are quite comfortable in creating and living with that inequity — even when it applies to those who are no longer amongst us.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 9th, 2024.

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