On the Politics of Attention, or the Political Justifications of Indifference

I had planned and written a different column for today, but I had done that almost a month ago and a lot has happened since. This time I am going to write about something I have written about before, after more than a hundred people were killed in Ankara by the Islamic State. I wanted to explore the way we handle these attacks in the media. I had titled it “Je Suis Ankara” and explained why I don’t agree with framing compassion and solidarity with a catchphrase, and talked about factors driving media attention. Now, I think some things have changed and I want to present a follow up.

In the first hours of this year, a massacre happened in Istanbul, in the nightclub Reina, and 39 people were killed by an Islamic State militant. Everyone can guess the shock and grief that followed, and the almost omnipresent feeling of solidarity with the victims. I had the chance to talk to a variety of people after the attack about it, and conservative, religious people of all ages acknowledged that this was an attack against a lifestyle considered alternative in today’s context, and they all considered this unacceptable. People celebrating the attack or implying the victims deserved it were marginal and few, and legal action was taken against them. There was substantial international media coverage of the event, partially because of the shock factors – New Year’s celebrations, high end nightclub, many tourist deaths. Along with these, there was a second kind of coverage: a series of articles on why “we” (we being the Western world) don’t care about Turkey or Istanbul or generally deaths outside the West. These articles explore the reasons why we (again, I am not in this “we” but the authors are) do not care about these deaths as we do for others, but fall short of critical thinking and consider their reasoning justified.

One article by Robert Fisk identifies racist reasons, military reasons and political reasons for this indifference. The reasons he identifies are not wrong in themselves, but the way he approaches the issue is from a perspective which assumes certain things, none of which relate to actual compassion or mourning for the dead, as the dead now have a nation and country and a government and a military which makes them unmournable. I am not asking for Robert Fisk’s compassion, actually, I have survived rather well without it for the past 19 years, but seeing a series of performative articles on why the Western world does not care about “Turkish deaths” (giving the act of being murdered a nation is iffy on its own, if one is talking about care at least, and not cold, hard politics) while trying to process said deaths is a bit jarring and frustrating.

First of all, this line of thinking subscribes to the “Every country has the government it deserves” approach, which just overlooks some things about how electoral systems work in real-life societies, especially complex and divided ones like Turkey. This is then painted as a valid reason not to care about Turkey (“Turkish deaths” to be more accurate, but as there were lots of victims from different backgrounds and as I don’t want to refer to dead people on the basis of their citizenship, I do not want to use this expression). The way this is framed would imply that the author is against the current government for its policies in the country and outside the borders. Which is reasonable, but then using this government and its policies as a reason not to care about the citizens living under the government (who are, by chance, the ones most affected by these policies, much more than any Western writer of opinion pieces sitting comfortably and safe well out of range). Following Fisk’s reasoning, if this attack is a result of government policies, then its victims, by extension, would be people negatively affected by the said government. Therefore, it would make sense that instead of using this fact against them, (as if you are punishing them for electing this government), one would be more inclined to show compassion to them. However, this specific perspective of Western media and people alike prefers to bask in a false sense of moral superiority instead of recognizing people who are killed as a result of terror are people who are killed as a result of terror regardless of their assumed nationalities and political alignments.

This also assumes that the entire country is in support of an elected government or has a finger in its acts. Beyond a misunderstanding of electoral systems, or a blatantly selective application of this fact (I don’t think every living American citizen is blamed for the election of Donald Trump, and American citizens who may be hurt by his presidency will not be met with indifference because of the election of Donald Trump, for example, and I have never heard of American citizens being denied compassion due to the war crimes and atrocities committed by their government), this shows a misunderstanding of Turkish society and the circumstances that led to the election of the AKP government. There are many reasons, and one would have to carefully examine 20th century Turkey to get a clear image but one of the primary reasons is the long-lasting societal cleavage between the urban-westernized-Kemalist section of the society and the rural-conservative-Muslims. AKP came forward as the party of the latter section, which had been pushed away from the elite centers of power.

One cannot paint the current government as the representative of or beneficial to the entire country and its people, this is so in most countries, but every citizen of Turkey has to carry this fact everywhere they go, in my experience I can say that one is constantly quizzed on their opinions of the government, and apparently one has to carry this fact in their death too, as a reason to be denied attention. This is not so for every country. The current situation is born of a divide, and it is convenient to ignore this and treat a society and country as a concrete block. It is also convenient to ignore the current situation of press freedom and social repression, if one wants to blame the opposition and imply that a lack of opposition is the reason for everything that happens, as if to say people wordlessly accept everything that happens in their country because they are indifferent. In a wider perspective, there is also a contradiction in this way of thinking. This way of thinking would consider the people of Turkey (along with many other non-Western societies), are incapable of determining their own future or understanding their own situation and choosing what’s best for them. There is this assumption of Western primacy that is condescending to other societies, seeing them as children who cannot tell good from bad, right from wrong. If that is the case, then the choices made by these societies are not the “right” choices to be made, but then they are still blamed for these choices collectively, even those who may not agree. Even if the people who die are pro-government, it is not up to some people living far away to decide the amount of attention anyone deserves, as they are not the people who are actually harmed by this government and this pretense of caring is very transparent. Terror has consequences affecting the entire country (worse economy, more fear, tightened political control, et cetera) and terror should be the focus of attention, not the “deaths”, if one is not a vulture seeking suffering to grade on an ideological purity scale.

Additionally, having one’s attention considered valuable enough to have written articles on why some people (or deaths) don’t deserve it seems like a level of confidence and entitlement I’d like to achieve one day. As I said before, I have lived to this day without the meaningful attention of Western societies, tragedy after tragedy, and I think when I die not much will change in this respect. However, I would like my life to have value in the eyes of the global community regardless of a government. The thing here which is “given” or not being given is not the attention itself but the value and humanity that some people are considered to have inherently, and some not. Attention itself has little material consequences, but this valuing of life and death determines how we react to tragedies, how we help those affected and the preventive measures we take and so on. Let’s stop pretending people’s attention is driven by their deep analysis of politics, let’s stop pretending it’s attention that’s the valuable commodity we need to deserve, and let’s admit that it’s not normal to write article upon article to justify a lack of response to a massacre. It helps nobody, changes nothing and is an easy way to demonstrate the lack of humanity allowed to people (dead or alive) in the collective imagination of some societies. It is easy to make statements from well out of range, and it is easy to disguise this as concern. It is true, nobody is obligated to pay attention, but let’s not pretend it’s about attention and let’s not pretend it’s a natural response to justify a lack of response to a massacre with a series of points about politics.

Alaz Ada

Alaz is from Istanbul, Turkey and is in the dual degree program with University of British Columbia. She enjoys writing essays especially on the social sciences but also writes poetry and prose; and sometimes also reads, paints and cooks as a hobby.

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