Thursday, January 15, 2015

I am Nigerian: Terrorism and the Limits of Love

Last week, the world became Charlie Hebdo.

After a pair of Islamist terrorists attacked the offices of the satirical French magazine, killing twelve, "Je Suis Charlie" ("I am Charlie") became a Twitter hashtag, a slogan on signs, a message on buttons pinned to celebrity lapels at the Golden Globes. There were marches. There was intense international attention. In the name of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the world stood with the victims of the attack.

A related attack in Paris, two days later, targeted a Kosher market, killing four and spurring the Grand Synagogue of Paris to cancel Shabbat services for the first time since World War II. It received somewhat less attention.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the terrorist group Boko Haram engaged in a slaughter of the innocents, killing perhaps as many as two thousand villagers. The news was reported, and the world went back to its usual routines. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they went back to announcing their solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

CNN has offered a nice overview of the differences between global reactions to the two disparate terrorist attacks--the one in France that has stimulated a display of international solidarity not seen since September 11; and the far bloodier one in Nigeria, which was received as another bit of bad news somewhere out there in the world. The report goes on to offer some explanations for the differences in reactions, ranging from the symbolic resonance of the Charlie Hebdo attack to the real-time reporting of unfolding events that was possible in France but not in northern Nigeria.  

My aim here is not to denounce the expressions of solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims, but to reflect on the limits of our solidarity. There would be something amiss in the world, I think, had the international community not offered the kind of show of solidarity for the victims of the Paris attacks that it did show. But if that is true, then there is something amiss in the world--because the reasons why it is right and good to show that kind of solidarity for the Charlie Hebdo victims are also reasons why it is right and good to show solidarity with the victims of countless other brutal and pointless tragedies.

The kinds of considerations that CNN invokes to explain the differences in our reactions do merely that: they explain. They don't justify.

We are flawed, finite creatures. We live our lives, absorbed in our own small concerns. And every once in awhile something breaks through--"Je Suis Charlie" enters our world in something like the way that a new fad sweeps in. We're caught up in the fad, and maybe the fad sparks some real compassion. But compassion is not a fad.

I am as guilty as anyone. In my case, my guilt is bound up with my academic leanings. Some events raise issues that I can't help but intellectually gnaw on, given my academic training and the direction of my scholarly concerns. The Charlie Hebdo massacre raised issues about freedom of speech, about the legitimacy of critiquing crude and disrespectful speech even in the wake of extreme and intolerable violent responses to that speech.

It raised issues about the ways in which extremists try to provoke retaliation--seeking to inspire those they attack to strike back in ways they hope will get out of hand, thereby helping to fuel the polarization and hostility that breeds extremism. Increasing Islamophobia is, for extreme Islamists, a victory: It means that Muslims will feel more alienated, more threatened. Fear and exclusion breed the kind of disaffection that may help the extremists identify and nurture new recruits.

Trained as I am in nonviolence theory and the study of conflict resolution, I find myself drawn in by these kinds of issues. But when I consider the ongoing violence in Nigeria, all I can see is blood. It's too much. The scale of it shuts down the intellect, and all I can do is turn away in mute horror.

It's so much easier to think about Charlie Hebdo, because I am able to hold it at arm's-length and think about it in intellectual terms. I'm a limited creature, and while I know I have within me the potential to push against those limits and even rise above them, too often I'm just too tired. I call that weariness sin.

If I loved deeply enough--if I loved with the kind of love that Jesus called for, the kind of love that encompasses everyone, even my enemies--I would be driven by a fire of love that would overcome my weariness. But too often the weariness wins, because my love is too limited. I call those limits sin.

I do not weep enough for the world, because I don't want to spend my whole life crying. I call that sin. I call it sin because it means my hope is frail.

And so I want to say that I am Charlie, but I also need to say that I am the Jews killed in a Kosher supermarket, and the Nigerian villagers slaughtered in their homes, and the Muslim who is horrified by the Charlie Hebdo killings and afraid of what it will mean in the weeks to come. I am the Palestinian suffering in Gaza, and the Jewish family in Tel Aviv cowering in a basement while bombs are lobbed from afar.

I want to say it because I want to feel it, because I want to be more than I am. And I want to encourage others to do the same.

Perhaps it is too much to weep for the whole world, for all its victims. Perhaps we must concede that our limits would turn such efforts into empty gestures. But at least we can cry for the Nigerian dead.


  1. Yes. And one of the problems is that when we realize the sin (limits of love) that we have for all the world (especially those most 'unlike' us) we can get stuck in obsessing on our failures and not responding. Noticing our lateness in recognizing a tragedy is good, doing something once we have acknowledge it is better, with a wider vigilance and sensitivity going forward. The approaching MLK Jr. day is a reminder that we will need to do this over and over, and not lose hope.

  2. I do not consider CNN to be a news source. One must surf over to twitter and follow the BBC or Al J News. I knew about the murders in Nigeria. (There are three reporters being held hostage from Al J News). We must be able to speak and write with disrespect especially in these times. Unfortunately a non-violent response to Hitler would have completely failed. All we have left for hope now is free speech. God will not swoop down and save us. I also do not think God only saves a chosen few. Weeping is fine as long as it does not traverse into self-absorption. This is what is wrong with America. Americans fling themselves into churches and pray instead of speaking. This is becoming the nation's utter demise across all lines. While we weep and pray China is literally buying us. By this, I mean literally buying up land while we sit and self-absorb and pray. I am not suggesting we engage in any war, but for the love of whatever God we choose or do not, can't we start thinking critically and in a practical way too before there is no America? I have never been so scared. I am not scared of terrorists. I am scared of complacent praying Americans with no critical thinking skills.