Connectedness and Conflict

Michael Vatikiotis
Jan 19th, 2015


The connectedness of our world is sowing the seeds of confusion and conflict.  Global discourse was once straightforward, and largely binary.  There was good and evil, right and wrong, up or down.  And so you would think it ends there: the savage murder of journalists, an outrage, an attack on free speech!


But our seamlessly connected community, by dissolving the protective boundaries of context, incubates hatred, hypocrisy and horrible irony.  More than a week after Islamic terrorists burst into the editorial offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo in a Paris suburb and gunned down a dozen of its staff, waves of horror and revulsion have whipped up a storm of debate over the definitions and boundaries of free expression. 


People have fallen into deep trenches, on one side blindly defending the right of free expression, on the other questioning anyone’s right to insult another’s faith.  As the battle rages, the specific cultural and historical context of the French magazine’s intellectual and cultural bearings has been lost.  A natural reaction is to shout out, ‘We are all Charlie’, even if we don’t understand the sources and compulsions of militant French secularism.


But we are not all Charlie, are we? A British newspaper publishes a cartoon that the Israeli government finds offensive, demanding redress (albeit not in blood) at the very same moment that the Israeli Prime Minister marches on the streets of Paris to express solidarity with the murdered French journalists who died for the cause of free expression.  And then, just when everyone feels a little better for having gathered en-masse to express their view, an ultra-orthodox Israeli newspaper publishes a photograph of the march, but only after airbrushing out the Chancellor of Germany and the Mayor of Paris, both women.


There are further ironies. When the publication so brutally attacked for publishing images of the Prophet Muhammad defiantly publishes a fresh series of images offensive to some, the public clamours to buy them in the millions.  Yet a French comedian who cracks jokes about feeling more like one of Charlie’s attackers than Charlie is promptly arrested on possible charges of “apology for terrorism”.


We were all Americans after September 11, 2001; we are all Charlie today.  We are in such a mad hurry to associate through the medium of social media that we fail to see who we actually are. That is something more complex than a label, and subject to qualification and to circumstances.


Not all of us are responsible global citizens sharing values and concerns; we are who we want to be.  Sometimes we are mild mannered, salaried officials making drone targeting decisions that kill innocent wedding guests in a flyblown desert encampment; other times we are suicide bombers killing innocents in a crowded market.  Each of us kills something, if not someone, in the name of something we value: freedom, security, purity of faith.


Who decides the value of life in these differing circumstances?  A day after the outrage in Paris that killed seventeen on January 7th, two dozen people died in a suicide bomb attack in Iraq that was barely noticed.  Less than a week later, the Islamic militant group Boko Haram wiped out the small town of Baga in Northeastern Nigeria. Who marched for these victims?  


Who are we to try to convince ourselves that we strive collectively for a common good when our animal nature impels some among us towards savagery?  Some, but not all of us, are indeed Charlie. Some of us are hypocrites. And too many of us are killers.


Michael Vatikiotis
Last blog date: Oct 18th, 2016


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