ONCE UPON A TIME, in a land far, far away, 276 girls turned into pumpkins, fell down a rabbit hole, were transformed into sparrows by evil wizards and were never heard of again.
I’m not talking about Cinderellas or Rapunzels here, girls who get their happily-ever-afters despite the obstacles and villains they face in their stories. There is no happy ending for these girls, the ones who were abducted, last April, from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria by Boko Haram, a militaristic group bent on creating an Islamist state in Nigeria. Not for them, none of whom have been recovered to date from the clutches of Boko Haram, and not for the families that were left to make sense of this almost year-long hell that they found themselves thrust into in the blink of an eye. Because what is hell but an eternal isolation from the ones you love?
I write this story like a fairy tale because, as far as the West is concerned, that’s what it was and what it continues to be: a story about an alien, other, unknown world, filled with bloodthirsty monsters, astounding – because you can be astounded by sheer horror – but, at the end of the day, not true. A story about things that go bump in the night to make mothers clutch at their children, but not too tightly, because they know those kinds of monsters don’t exist. At least, not in my country, they tell themselves, not in the West. But these kinds of horrors perpetrated by Boko Haram aren’t a fairy tale — they’re a nightmare, one you can’t wake up from, because the monsters are real, whether we pretend they aren’t or not, whether we forget their victims or not.
In violence that spanned much of last week, Boko Haram massacred at least 2000 people around the town of Baga on the Nigeria-Chad border, the majority of the victims being children and elderly people too slow or physically frail to flee its agents. At the same time, Boko Haram has been using girls as young as 10 years old as suicide bombers, strapping bombs around their chests, sending them into crowded public places, and detonating the explosives remotely. There have already been two recently-documented incidences in which child suicide bombers have been used in Boko Haram’s terror tactics, but I’m willing to bet that they’re not the only ones who have had their lives snuffed out in such a soul-crushing manner — just the ones who left enough remains behind for their ages and genders — forget about their identities — to be identified.
But the world, primarily the West, is reacting much more quietly and doing less (read: nothing at all) than what it did the first time Boko Haram made news, which admittedly wasn’t much, unless you consider a short-lived burst of Twitter hashtag activism – the #BringBackOurGirls “movement” of early 2014 – to be “a lot” when it comes to global reactions to massacre and violence. Except for a few articles reporting on the events, there’s been no outrage, no #BringBackOurGirlsPartTwo. Why has the world been silent?
Last week also saw another tragedy unfold, thousands of miles away but no less horrifying: the shootings that took place at the headquarters of Paris-based publication Charlie Hebdo, which claimed the lives of a dozen people and injured a dozen more, carried out by two Islamist gunmen. The world has not been silent about that, not digitally (#JeSuisCharlie, the hashtag that gained immense traction on Twitter around the world as a sign of solidarity, still gets thousands of tweets an hour). Not physically, either – a march held on Monday in Paris, in protest of the attacks and in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, numbered 1.5-million strong, and was led by the heads of state of a number of prominent countries. In the days following the attack, millions of people took to Twitter and hundreds of writers took to their respective platforms to laud and defend the principle of freedom of speech, that fundamental right that was the target of the attack as much as Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists were.
But I don’t think that these two different reactions displayed by the West can be explained by outrage at an attack on the right to freedom of speech or a focus on one to the detriment of the other. I think a more plausible explanation would be fear — a uniquely Western fear — that violence and acts of terror aren’t a fairy tale that can be banished by clinging to philosophical principles like “freedom of speech” and “democracy” and “justice.” As long as that kind of violence doesn’t encroach on our world and stays on the other side of the looking glass, in Nigeria and other non-Western countries where it belongs, we can pretend it doesn’t exist. We can ignore it. We can turn a blind eye and an apathetic heart to the victims of violence that we hear and read about; you don’t shed tears when a pumpkin falls to the floor and smashes, after all. At the very least, you can acknowledge it momentarily and then file it away in the part of your mind where things too horrible to contemplate get stored, and go on with your life.
But the minute that kind of violence crosses the invisible divide separating the West from the rest of the world, the West is forced to come face-to-face with its greatest and most secret fear: that its way of life and everything it holds dear can be ripped to shreds in a moment’s notice, that every action it might have ever taken to preserve and defend itself falls short in the critical moment, that it is not, in fact, exceptional, that it is not immune to the evils that plague the world. That’s why the West has reacted so strongly to the events of the Charlie Hebdo shooting and so apathetically to the continued rampage of Boko Haram in Nigeria: fear, not outrage. Fear.
There is no justification, no explanation, for the violence and terror perpetrated by the kinds of people like members of Boko Haram and the gunmen carrying out the shooting in Paris. But there is also no justification, no way to explain – morally, at least – the vastly different reactions the West has had to these two tragedies, no way to explain why the government of France has dedicated one million euros to Charlie Hebdo to support the magazine while no Western government has done more than send intelligence teams to Nigeria to aid in the search of the missing girls, no way to explain why this kind of violence is acknowledged but left untended, no way to explain why it takes Angelina Jolie bringing attention to Boko Haram for CNN to run a segment on it. There are no explanations and there are no words. No one can hear you on the other side of the looking glass, no matter how loudly you scream.
The West will never forget Charlie Hebdo, we can be damn well sure about that. But it’s already forgotten the 276 Chibok schoolgirls who disappeared into thin air, and it’ll probably forget the latest victims of Boko Haram just as soon as they gain the world’s fleeting attention — if they ever manage to, that is. And if that isn’t a real tragedy, I have no idea what is.