These days it is once again very clear: There are two kinds of dead. Some are worth more to us than others who are far away.
As long as only people in Africa were affected by Ebola, our compassion was limited. Image: reuters
There is no such thing as an unworthy life; that’s easy to say. But the value of a life is measured very differently. This becomes obvious at the latest when it comes to the value of a dead person.
In ancient Siam (now Thailand), this value was precisely quantifiable. The judges judged murder as well as bodily harm according to a table of dignity points: The life of a rickshaw driver was worth less than the little finger of a prince.
In some Islamic countries, the relatives of a murder victim can demand so-called blood money from the perpetrator as compensation; a dead woman is then worth less than a dead man.
All this, of course, seems monstrous to us. For us, the news determines the value of the dead. Every newcomer to the media business hears this rule at some point: one dead person in Cologne is like ten dead people in England or a hundred dead people in Brazil or 1,000 dead people in Africa. The rule has variants: with Indians possibly one zero more than with Brazilians, and as far as Africa is concerned, only maximum numbers can quietly shake the wall of indifference anyway.
It may be peculiar to us humans that near suffering touches us more than far suffering. In the next step, we are more likely to show empathy for those who seem close to us because we consider them similar to us. For example, because they are white or Christian. Or because they live in places that we just thought could be visited by tourists. The border to racism is fluid. It is a racism that is inherent in the vast majority of us Europeans, even if our minds resist Eurocentric views of the world.
Distance, cultural affiliation, skin color, these are the silent, constant criteria in our perception of the value of life and the dead; we hardly notice them as standard furnishings of our household of compassion.
More obvious is the seasonally changing: the political interests of the West. They determine how much the suffering of others actually concerns us and how many deaths are necessary for us to understand them as a call to action. And rarely does all this come to light as blatantly as in these weeks.
Syria and Iraq: The dead in one and the same region are of very different value – depending on the West’s relationship to the murderers. The victims of the terrorist militia of the so-called Islamic State are small in number compared to the victims of Bashar al-Assad -but IS is now pure evil, on whose fight "the future of mankind" depends (Obama).
Assad and his victims
For three years before, an endless row of white-shrouded children’s corpses passed the weary eyes of the West. The indifference to the Syrian, mostly Muslim, victims can only be explained by the fact that Assad is seen as a secular ruler whom the West may still need.
Certainly, some courageous journalists have repeatedly pointed out the extent of Assad’s war crimes. But it was the Yazidis fleeing IS that gave a face to the suffering in the region in all major media and in prime time that moved viewers.
The Yezidis were hunted for a belief that somehow did not seem to fit Islam; thus they were entitled to empathy. And then, after three years of nameless dying, the execution of three white Westerners set in motion a Western campaign.
The 21st century certainly knows an equivalent to that table of dignity points by which judges in feudal Siam proceeded. The deaths of hundreds of thousands may be a small weight on the scale; the deaths of three people, on the other hand, may weigh heavily if their provocatively choreographed execution touches the collective dignity of the West. They are, in the Siamese image, the princes. And Syrian children are like the little finger of a rickshaw driver.
Black doctors do not count
Subjectively, no one in the West may like this. Some are ashamed of it. But our public echo chamber is constructed in such a way that white, Western life always appears superior; its violent termination tends to be a global event. IS had an easy time banking on this effect. If you think of headlines as being like tombstones, there was no tombstone to be had in our country for the Syrian journalist the terror militia killed, because Western journalists were being executed at the same time.
They were heroes; the Syrian colleague died habitually. So did Iraqi human rights lawyer Samira Saleh al-Naimi, executed by IS on the same day that French mountain guide Herve Gourdel was beheaded in Algeria. Only Gourdel was in the circle of light of our empathy.
Executions are not an IS invention
The full extent of the Ebola epidemic was only brought to our attention after a white doctor succumbed to the virus. As if the plague had only become an unavoidable reality at that moment. And not when black doctors died. An old photo came across me on Twitter these days: a public serial execution of Indian colonial soldiers by British officers in World War I; Indian Muslims had refused to fight the Ottoman Empire.
Executions as a propaganda tool are not an invention of IS. But the picture reminds us of something else: In our commemoration of the two world wars, the non-European victims still do not appear. There were millions – all of them not princes.
As repulsive as beheading videos are: What does it look like when the children of refugees sink in the floods of the Mediterranean Sea before their parents’ eyes? The civilization defended against IS does not send an armada to save them. It is dead men who do nothing. Not princes.
If you look at a world map and see which countries take in the most refugees, you might think: the value of life applies more outside Europe.