Charlie Hebdo and our erratic internationalism

Charlie Hebdo
Charlie Hebdo

This week, something horrible happened. In Paris, France, three armed men arrived at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – the closest English equivalent would probably be Private Eye – and shot 12 people dead. The perpetrators, one in custody, two still at large (Edit: now dead, shot by police), are apparently French-Algerian Islamic extremists.

There are already reports of firebomb attacks on mosques, as the logically challenged exact ‘revenge’. In fact, as anyone level-headed knows very well, the jihadis are about as representative of mainstream Islam as Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Brievik is of mainstream Christianity. Grimly, given the ever-provocative magazine’s staunchly leftist editorial stance, the only person likely to do well out of all this is Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s neo-Nazi Front National.

But now comes the delicate bit. In the 48 hours since the atrocity was committed, a wave of international solidarity has rolled France-ward. World leaders rightly condemned the terrorists. Social media rightly abounded with Spartacus-style ‘I Am Charlie Hedbo’ hash-tags. And left-wingers shuffled precariously along the moral tightrope, rightly expressing their solidarity with the French, but rightly pointing out that radical Islamism is just a fanatical, ultra-conservative backlash to decades of Western abuse in the Arab world.

Now, as the dust settles, another extremely valid but thoroughly unpopular moral question is being poked at, on the fringes at least. Murder is always wrong. Killing unarmed civilians is an unforgivable crime. The perpetrators should be hunted down and locked away for the rest of their lives in the dingiest prison in France. But – shields up – where’s the moral outrage, the international solidarity, the spontaneous popular displays of support when hundreds of innocents are killed in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and the like every day? When Israel blows up hospitals full of children and kills 17 journalists in Palestine?

There are probably about a hundred variants of the same argument being hammered into article-shape as we speak. We’re still bothering to write ours because the ones we’ve seen focus on the standard list of left-wing internationalist causes. Those are highly appropriate examples to cite. But we’re more interested in the big unspeakable of Western civilisation – that on this planet over 20,000 people die of starvation every day. They’re the same old facts we’ve used again and again, but they keep happening again and again – starvation deaths at the rate of one every few seconds, malaria deaths at one a minute, mothers dying in childbirth at one a minute. The list goes on.

We’re still waiting on the JeSuisStarvingMillions hash-tag. Technically, 20,000 starvation victims should receive 1,600 or so times the level of exposure and international solidary that 12 do. As is stands, they don’t get acknowledged at all.

Why? ‘It’s different’, is the stock mainstream reply. Why is it different? Because those 12 cartoonists, journalists and policemen were murdered. Starvation and the like, by implication, are ‘natural’.

First of all, the millions-who-die-preventable-deaths-weren’t-murdered argument doesn’t excuse the unshakable apathy towards the kind of leftist pet causes we mentioned earlier – Assad and ISIS are murdering civilians, as are the Israeli Defence Force, et cetera.

But more to the point, starvation isn’t natural. All famines are political. Yes, crops might fail because of a random spasm of nature – but half of all the food produced in the world gets thrown away. We’ve got transport planes that can circle the globe in thirty hours or so. If the political will was there, no-one would starve.

Some people will argue it’s a distance thing – France is the closest thing the British Isles have to a neighbour. But look back to the worldwide reaction to 9/11, or the laudable public responses we saw when US police shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson. Britain’s geographically closer to Africa than it to the United States.

So it must be culture. France is an advanced capitalist liberal democracy, and so is Britain. The kinds of places where people starve or lack basic medical care aren’t. They’re poor. People like us matter. Poor people don’t.

That’s the ugly truth, the ideology underpinning our erratic internationalism. And the more time you spend pondering the issue, the more it becomes clear that our self-regarding culture and our psychological need to think we’re good, decent people conspire to come up with any old excuse for it.