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Whose Lives Matter?

When refugees die on Europe’s borders, the West wants to act, but when Assad rains barrel bombs on Homs, no one cares.

CHRISTMAS ISLAND, AUSTRALIA:  A HMAS Adelaide navy officer (L yellow-life jacket) rescues a refugee child from the sea after the child was thrown into the water by his parents in what is viewed by the Australian government as a dangerous stunt aimed at forcing Australian authorities to take them to Australian territories, 10 October 2001 off Christmas Island, while two other refugees swim.  A 187 load of boatpeople were rescued after they sabotaged their vessel in the Indian Ocean but are not wanted in Australia, Prime Minister John Howard said.    AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
CHRISTMAS ISLAND, AUSTRALIA: A HMAS Adelaide navy officer (L yellow-life jacket) rescues a refugee child from the sea after the child was thrown into the water by his parents in what is viewed by the Australian government as a dangerous stunt aimed at forcing Australian authorities to take them to Australian territories, 10 October 2001 off Christmas Island, while two other refugees swim. A 187 load of boatpeople were rescued after they sabotaged their vessel in the Indian Ocean but are not wanted in Australia, Prime Minister John Howard said. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The world has no shortage of victims of terrible tragedies these days. Death tolls are rising in places from Syria to Sudan and some 60 million people have been displaced from their homes worldwide. But which of these people will get widespread support and sympathy and which will be ignored or neglected? A photograph of a single drowned Syrian child riveted the world’s attention on the humanitarian crisis unfolding there, and the beheading of two American journalists by the Islamic State forced a reluctant president to pay more attention to the problem than he initially intended. Yet few people in the United States spend much time thinking about hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who lost their lives as a consequence of the U.S. invasion, just as most of the world ignored the frightful human consequences of the long Congo War(s). Human suffering may still be a depressingly constant feature of our politics, but sometimes these tragedies bring forth an outpouring of sympathy, money, and armed intervention; at other times the world turns its back.

Why do some groups trigger our sympathy and win outside help while other victims suffer in (relative) obscurity? Here’s my initial cut at an answer: a nine-point framework that describes what I’ve called the “social construction of victimhood.”

1. How many are suffering or dying? Other things being equal, the greater the number of people at risk, the more likely their victimhood is to be recognized and the greater the corresponding response is likely to be. A purely utilitarian calculus tells us outsiders should be more responsive when more people are suffering and dying, because an effective response could produce a greater positive effect. But other things are rarely equal, and the number of people suffering doesn’t seem to determine the magnitude of response in any clear or linear fashion. Millions died in the Congo Wars and most of the world didn’t even know about them; whereas the (possibly mistaken) fear of a much smaller massacre in Benghazi helped convince the United States and others to intervene and topple Libya’s former dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Numbers do matter, but they don’t tell the whole story.

2. Who is suffering or dying? As John Tirman has shown in his important book The Deaths of Others, Americans are far more sensitive to the casualties suffered by our fellow citizens than we are to the deaths we inflict on others. And the United States is hardly unique: States normally pursue their own self-interest and that means they care far more about protecting their own citizens than they care about helping foreign populations. This tendency isn’t all that surprising; even liberal democracies tend to wage war with little regard for the harm they inflict on the enemy population, civilians included.

A corollary is that countries are more likely to respond when the victims are regarded as friendly or when we see them as similar to ourselves. As critics noted at the time, the United States and EU were a lot more concerned about the plight of (white) Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia than they were about the plight of (black) Africans in Rwanda or the Congo. And we are less likely to respond when allies are causing the problem: the United States is quick to condemn Russia for its indiscriminate bombing in Syria but is actively aiding the Saudi air campaign in Yemen and pays little attention to the civilians pummeled by Israeli airpower in Gaza.

But “cultural similarity” or political alignment isn’t the whole story either. After all, the primary beneficiaries of Western intervention in the Balkan Wars were the Bosnian Muslims, which is not what the “clash of civilizations” paradigm would have predicted. Powerful states might be somewhat more inclined to help allies rather than adversaries, but the collective response to large-scale suffering doesn’t conform to strict ideological or cultural lines.

3. How are people dying? Political leaders also seem to be sensitive to the way that people are dying, not just the numbers or their identities, but their reactions aren’t always logical or easy to explain. For example, it is not obvious that dying from a chemical weapon is worse than being killed by an artillery shell or barrel bomb, but governments seem to treat the former as especially heinous and more likely to provoke a response. Similarly, the callousness and brutality of video-taped beheadings sparks a more visceral reaction than more mundane ways of killing even if shooting or bombing someone is just as deadly, equally painful, and responsible for a larger number of victims.

Not surprisingly, politicians and publics are also more responsive when a humanitarian catastrophe is swift, sudden, and violent, and we pay less attention when victims are dying slowly and quietly. For this reason, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs attract more attention and concern than the possibility that some Syrians may starve or die from exposure and disease. Human brains are hard-wired to respond to vivid events, which makes it easier for us to ignore events or processes that lack the dramatic impact that makes for a riveting CNN segment.

4. Are the deaths deliberate or accidental? Interestingly, we tend to see the victims of accidents — such as a bombing raid or drone strike that goes awry — as especially tragic, because their deaths seem so pointless. But we are also less likely to respond to accidental or inadvertent suffering than we are to deliberate punitive campaigns, because more lives are at risk when combatants are targeting civilians than when civilian deaths are an unintended by-product. If Assad’s forces in Syria were carefully distinguishing between civilians and combatants and doing their best to avoid the former, we would be less concerned if some civilians were nonetheless killed by accident. It is the indiscriminate and deliberate nature of the Syrian government’s actions that has rightly turned so many against it.

This distinction makes no difference to the victims (unintended or otherwise), but it does seem to affect the likelihood that others will intervene. Needless to say, this is why states that are committing war crimes routinely deny that this is what they are doing, and automatically attribute any and all civilian deaths to mistakes, or to the “fog of war.”

5. Is there a simple solution to the problem? People often say all life is sacred, but it is easier to pay attention to victims when it is also obvious how to help them. If helping others is too hard, too risky, or likely to cost too much, it is more tempting to look away. Politicians are understandably loath to highlight problems for which they have no answers, so they will do their best to ignore the victims’ plight lest they look ineffectual.

For this reason, we tend to see more vigorous and energetic responses after a natural disasters, because sending relief aid is less likely to drag responders into a complex, unwinnable quagmire. But as the case of Syria reminds us, states are warier about getting involved in someone else’s civil war because helping succor the victims is likely to be a lot harder. The bottom line: Victims of Mother Nature are more likely to get help than people victimized by their fellow humans.

6. Are the victims (partly) responsible? When conflicts unfold, our sympathies naturally gravitate toward those who bear no blame for their suffering, and who are, as the phrase puts it, “innocent victims.” This is one reason why we react more powerfully to civilian deaths, and especially to the deaths of children. Soldiers suffer in war as well — sometimes grievously — but their plight does not trigger the same degree of sympathy. A struggle between two equally matched factions, where neither deserves the moral high ground, looks different to us than a situation where a powerful majority is suppressing a much weaker minority, and all the more so if the minority has done little to provoke it.

And here’s the rub: Groups trying to attract outside support know how to play this card. They will go to great lengths to portray their own side as virtuous and to accuse their opponents of all manners of atrocities. The purpose, of course, is to portray themselves as innocent victims and convince the outside world that their enemies are brutal, inhuman monsters. Groups that know how to spin effectively are more likely to win support than groups that lack these skills. This is not to say that there is not genuine suffering going on, but it reminds us that claims of victimhood need to be judged with a skeptical eye and confirmed by independent sources. And the same goes for the rationalizations offered by powerful oppressors, who of course will try to paint their victims as somehow deserving of what they are getting. Unfortunately, assessing who is (mostly) telling the truth here is not easy, even in the information-saturated environment of today.

7. Was it “worth it?” Humanity may have made some progress over the centuries, but many countries are still willing to countenance a lot of suffering if they think it will advance some larger purpose. As former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously responded when asked about the thousands of Iraqis who may have died as a result of the U.S.-led sanctions program, “we think the price is worth it.” The numbers may have been exaggerated and Albright clearly regretted her statement, but the logic is clear and hardly unique to her or to the United States. Ambitious countries are often willing to sacrifice the lives of others in order to advance broader objectives, although they rarely ‘fess up to it as openly.

8. Are the victims well-connected and media-savvy? Victims are more likely to win attention and support if they know how to communicate their experience, if they have ready access to global media institutions, and if they know how to play the media game. Others won’t respond if they don’t know what is happening, or if they don’t get a clear sense of who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Accordingly, the social construction of victimhood depends in part on how well those who are suffering are able to tell their story to the world. It helps if the story they are telling is (mostly) true, but groups seeking outside support have obvious incentives to spin a self-serving story and to describe their situation in ways that are likely to resonate with powerful actors who might be persuaded to lend a hand. For this reason, outside powers are probably wise to treat the victims’ testimony with some skepticism, but without letting that skepticism turn into cynicism. All too often, those claiming to be victims are just that.

9. Timing matters, too. It may not make logical or moral sense, but our response to victims is also affected by what is happening in other parts of the world, and the timing of the latest crisis. If the global agenda isn’t very crowded, if powerful states are free to take swift action, and if previous efforts to send help actually worked, then victims of tragedy are more likely to receive assistance. But “donor fatigue” can set in quickly if other states and international institutions are already bedeviled by other problems, and if previous efforts to intervene went poorly. To cite an obvious example, President Barack Obama’s reluctance to jump into the Syrian quagmire was undoubtedly strengthened by the outcome of the earlier intervention in Libya, not to mention the long and costly U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

* * *

The implication of all of the above, I’m afraid, is that the international community’s response to victims will remain haphazard and inconsistent. For all our bold rhetoric about the “responsibility to protect,” the collective response to even large-scale tragedies will usually reflect a complex set of calculations rather than a simple urge to help those in trouble. If that bothers you — and it should — perhaps the obvious lesson is to do more to head off civil conflicts before they start.

Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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